If SuperMeat's ambitious research succeeds, soon you'll be able to grow 3-D chicken parts that are biologically identical to the 'real' thing.
TreeHugger is a guest of Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization leading a tour called Vibe Eco Impact in December 2016 that explores various sustainability initiatives throughout Israel.
Meat, as we know it, is a bloody business. There’s a lot wrong with it, from the amount of land being deforested to make room for cattle ranches in the Amazon, to the excessive amount of water required to raise animals, to the vast number of antibiotics administered to livestock. The meat sold in stores isn’t even healthy, as much of it comes from sick animals. Eighty percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, and 70 percent of supermarket chicken contains carcinogenic arsenic compounds that are used to speed growth.
Alternatives do exist. People could give up meat altogether, embracing veganism and plant-based eating. Others are moving toward insects as a source of safer, ecologically efficient protein. Both of these are entirely realistic, but they are hard sells. Dietary habits are deeply rooted in tradition and culture, and to break away from those habits takes determination that many people lack.
Shir Friedman believes there is another way in which to change people’s minds and halt the environmental and ethical disaster that is current industrial animal agriculture. Friedman works for SuperMeat, an Israeli company whose tagline is “REAL meat, without harming animals.” It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? That’s why I sat down with Friedman for a conversation at a (vegan) restaurant in Tel Aviv last week to learn more about what SuperMeat is trying to do – and has already done.
SuperMeat’s goal is to create cultured chicken meat, using cells taken from a single chicken who was not harmed in the process. It is different from other cultured meat companies because it wants to grow entire, recognizable, three-dimensional meat parts, i.e. chicken legs, thighs, breasts, bones and fat (even leather, eventually); whereas all other cultured meat research has focused on ground beef substitutes, like hamburger patties. These parts would be biologically identical to the ‘real’ thing, which means they would look, taste, smell, and feel like ordinary chicken.
Most interestingly, SuperMeat is the only company that has figured out a way to culture cells without having to feed them an animal serum made of cow’s blood. Friedman pointed out the obvious irony in needing a steady supply of blood in order to grow meat, which rather defeats the purpose of moving away from livestock consumption.
How is this possible?
The technology has already been developed by a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a biomedical engineer and tissue researcher named Yaakov Nahmias. Professor Nahmias has successfully grown a piece of fully functional human liver using a method called “human on a chip,” and SuperMeat has every reason to believe that the same process can be used to grow animal muscles.
The details of the process are proprietary, but basically the cells would be grown in an environment that would replicate the animal’s body. Friedman told me, “Think of it as a womb, and you’re growing the tissue from scratch.” These ‘wombs’, in SuperMeat’s long-term vision, would exist everywhere. They could sit on your kitchen counter, in grocery stores or restaurants, and all you’d have to do is insert a protein capsule that would grow into a piece of meat for your dinner.
It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but SuperMeat has been hugely successful so far. Its Indiegogo campaign raised $100,000 in a week, earlier this year. Now it is recruiting bigger investors, and expects to start research in full force within two to three months. It plans to have a prototype finished within 9 months, and a marketable product in 5 years.
SuperMeat will cost around $5/kilogram at the beginning, but eventually that price (which is already significantly cheaper than supermarket chicken) will drop even more. Friedman argues it will be healthier, since people will be able to make changes to the meat to reflect their nutritional needs, such as fat, vitamin, and muscle content. These would be external changes, not genetic modification, as SuperMeat uses no genetic modification in its process. It would be safer, too, without risk of salmonella and antibiotic contamination.
I worry that Friedman and the folks at SuperMeat may have underestimated people’s willingness to eat cultured meat– like eating insects, many stubbornly refuse, simply because it’s uncomfortable – but the arguments for it are powerful, which is bound to sway opinions. A fraction of the land and resources used to create the exact same product? It sounds perfect. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but if SuperMeat succeeds, I’ll be first in line to buy it.