Tuesday, January 14, 2014


The debate regarding the need to eat animal "sacrificed" foods is as old has human history. While the vegetarian population is hardly about 10% in the world, most people are non-vegetarians by nature. With the ever increasing population in this planet, the demand for animal foods is galloping and it is a question of time before the gap between demand and supply becomes too big to be bridged. Moderation in meat foods consumption is more easily preached than practiced. There are plant protein based simulated meat products but these are at best substitutes not giving full satisfaction to the eaters. Expanding meat production using modern technologies is possible but at a tremendous cost to the environment as the green house gas emissions can rise to alarming levels causing unbearable global warming. Thus the mankind is faced with a Hobson's choice as to whether meat is to be shunned more substantially than what is being practiced to day.

Modern biotechnology came with cloning which was touted as an answer to produce more animals with disease free conditions. However this approach has been given up as the technology is too expensive to be translated into commercial scale operations. Genetic manipulations gave rise to higher yields of meat and jumbo salmons. Here again consumers are weary of genetically modified foods because of uncertainties regarding their long term safety. The clamor for labeling of GMO foods in the US can be taken as a manifestation of the desire of consumers to shun such foods with unsure safety credentials.

Campaigns have been undertaken from time to time in different parts of the world to promote vegetarianism because of the many ill effects of animal breeding, slaughtering and meat processing as it takes place to day. Moreover ethically killing a living creature to get the food for humans may be difficult to be justified. It is true that humans during evolution had to hunt for food just like other animals co-existing with him but to day there is no such need as Mother Earth can support production of plant foods, equally nutritious as animal food through modern farming technologies. Some of the food grains like Quinoa, Chea, Amaranthus etc can be more healthy than meat foods. But leeway has to be given to the present generation and the next one in consuming meat foods before gradually weaning away from them in about 30-50 years time. 

The organization PETA ( People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) is to be applauded for instituting an award of $ 1 million for any one coming out with a technology to make chicken meat without ever killing a bird! This means that such a meat has to be produced in a laboratory under controlled conditions. Many attempts in the past in this direction failed because of a variety of factors. Recent claims by a private company to have developed an egg without going through the chicken route did create some excitement, only to be disappointed when it was realized that this plant based egg substitute in powder form can be used only as an ingredient in many food preparations containing egg solids.

Another claim was recently made by a group of scientists in India to have made a milk like concoction from plant materials like drumstick leaves, mushroom etc, calling it "Green Milk", whatever that means! There are many patented formulas for milk substitutes derived mostly from plant materials but milk from Cow or Buffallo is a unique product which cannot be imitated 100% in terms of nutrition and functionality. Besides such "senseless" development can be considered as waste of scientific talents, resources and time. Of course a small population allergic to Milk Lactose or Casein do need plant based milk products but this demand can be met by the existing range of plant milks without going in for more research. 

It is against this background one has to see the challenge taken up by a maverick entrepreneur in the US to promote a laboratory grown meat for which he financed a group of scientists to the extent of about $ 330, 000 and succeeded in creating a beef muscle bundle, resembling the natural beef meat. The scientists used the stem cells from the shoulder of a cow to grow meat muscles by feeding nutrients from bovine fetus serum. The effort by itself is amazing as it required 20000 strips of tissues to be grown get about 140 gm of meat, considered adequate to make a burger! The novelty of the approach is really noteworthy and criticism regarding the cost of making this sample may be some what misplaced. As a scientific endeavor it is notable. 

One of the reservations on accepting the above product as a satisfactory imitator of beef is regarding its taste and over all satisfaction from the sensory perspective. According to those who are privy to the above development the "lab created" beef lacked the fatty taste and the texture was nowhere near that of the natural beef. The concept has been proved to be workable and since stem cells are present in every animal, this technology may work out in creating other meats like chicken, pork, mutton, lamb or even more exotic things such as caviar or shark liver. Theoretically one biopsy could provide enough stem cell material to easily grow 20,000 tonnes of lab meat. There may be a need to develop techniques to incorporate fat into such meats, improve the color and texture which may not be difficult for scientists. Using fat stem cells fat can be added while myoglobin can impart the typical meat color. Of course more challenging would be to imitate the meat texture which can be possible only by providing suitable skeletons for the muscle fiber to grow. How the cost can be brought down is the million dollar question which may take a long time to resolve. But with persistent and sustained efforts, there is no doubt that food scientists will come with the right product with right sensory quality at right price within a reasonable time.


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