In an effort to make meat production more humane, alleviate hunger and help curb global warming, Dutch researchers have developed a way to grow edible meat in the laboratory from the stem cells of pigs. Although the lab-grown strips of meat don't yet taste or look much like pork (researchers say it has the consistency and feel of scallop), the ramifications for the new technology on the world's food supply could be significant.
"If we took the stem cells from one pig and multiplied it by a factor of a million, we would need one million fewer pigs to get the same amount of meat," said Mark Post, a biologist at Maastricht University involved in the project.
That means the technology could provide food for more people while making the slaughterhouse obsolete. Furthermore, since meat production is such a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, switching to lab-produced meat could theoretically lower the industry's impact on global warming by up to 95 percent.
Of course, the technology does have its share of critics. Some health experts caution that consuming lab-made meats could have unforeseen dangers to human health. Furthermore, there are concerns that such radical plans to reduce our dependency on livestock and farm animals could harm agricultural ecosystems.
It's also doubtful that bacon lovers and foodies would ever trade in the real thing for spongy lab meat. Not even the Dutch researchers responsible for growing the meat have been brave enough to try it yet, and they admit it's probably a long way off from tasting like real pork.
"Part of our enjoyment of eating meat depends on the very complicated muscle and fat structure ... whether that can be replicated is still a question," said biochemist Peter Ellis.
Even so, the scientists involved in the project think the benefits of the technology far exceed the risks. And as the process is perfected, they believe they can produce tastier meat which might actually be better for you than the real thing.
For instance, fish stem cells could be used to produce healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which could then be produced instead of the usual artery-clogging fats found in traditional livestock meat.
"You could possibly design a hamburger that prevents heart attacks instead of causing them," said Jason Matheny, an expert on the technology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
So far the only types of meat researchers are proposing to make this way are processed meats such as minced meat, hamburgers or hot dogs. It could also potentially be a source of protein for pet food.
"As long as it's cheap enough and has been proven to be scientifically valid, I can't see any reason people wouldn't eat it," said Stig Omholt, a genetics expert at the University of Life Sciences in Norway. "If you look at the sausages and other things people are willing to eat these days, this should not be a big problem."
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