A Pork Chop to Change the World (Yes, Really)
Gabor Forgacs thinks he can convince Hindus to eat steak and vegetarians to eat meat.
The University of Missouri bioengineering professor introduced this idea at the October 2011 TEDMED conference in San Diego--an event featuring presentations from the world’s greatest minds in health and medicine. During his presentation, Gabor Forgacs ate a pork chop that some think can change the world. The thin, nearly translucent slab of meat was not cut from a slaughtered pig. Rather, it was created in a petri dish using a 3D printer.
“This is not synthetic meat,” Gabor said in the presentation. “This is real meat because it is made of the same cells that meat is composed [of]. I think that the best word is in vitro meat.”
Regardless of its classification, what Gabor ate that day has the potential to help solve several of the world’s most pressing economic and environmental challenges; deforestation, world hunger, fossil fuel dependency, animal cruelty, and climate change all stand to benefit from “cultured meat” production.
Now, Gabor’s son Andras Forgacs is trying to turn it into big business. In September 2011, Andras co-founded and became CEO of Modern Meadow, a company that plans to use Gabor’s bioprinting research to create leather goods and cultured meat for the consumer market. “I’m not a vegetarian,” Andras said. “I love beef. But I realize the resource intensity of animal farming ... We have a way of developing biomaterials like leather and meat where we just create the materials we use.”
Using traditional methods, producing just one quarter pound hamburger requires 6.7 pounds of feed, 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land, and 1,036 Btus of fossil fuel energy (enough energy to power a microwave for 18 minutes), according to the December 2011 edition of Journal of Animal Science.
In her June 2011 study, University of Oxford researcher Hanna Tuomisto said that “cultured meat production emits substantially less [greenhouse gas] emissions and requires only a fraction of land water compared to conventionally produced meat in Europe.”
It’s this proposition--a clean, efficient way to produce meat--that has helped Modern Meadow garner investor, government, and private interest group attention.
Already, the company has received a $92,000 Small Business Innovation Research phase one grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a $350,000 grant from Breakout Labs, a Thiel Foundation initiative focused on helping jumpstart “breakthrough” science and technology companies. Singularity University--a technology advancement organization housed on NASA’s Research Park--made Modern Meadow part of its inaugural class of accelerator companies this summer and invested $60,000 in the venture.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has also championed Modern Meadow’s mission. “People who find it hard to remove themselves from eating meat will have something they can eat that is not cruel, that will be cleaner and will be far less resource intensive than factory farming,” she said.
But while the social benefits of meat engineering are far-reaching, in reality, they are years away.
According to Tuomisto’s research, commercializing cultured meat production necessitates a $160 million investment--far less than the several hundred thousand dollars Modern Meadow has received thus far.
So, Modern Meadow’s immediate goal is to produce synthetic leather. (Skin cells have a less complex molecular structure than muscle cells, making them easier to produce.) Andras hopes to demonstrate a leather fashion accessory product by the end of 2013. This September, the company established an independent research and development laboratory in Columbia, Missouri, to begin working toward that goal.
Andras said that converting carnivores to eat engineered meat will be tougher than selling synthetic leather, though, and that’s not even accounting for Food and Drug Administration regulations. “I think there are a lot of people excited about the meat product, but it will certainly be more controversial,” Andras said.
But Andras does not see any distinction between cultured meat and beer, cheese, and yogurt, cultured food products that people eat and drink daily. Another advantage to cultured meat is that scientists can control the placement of fat within a piece of meat. “We can uniformly distribute the fat so that [the meat] is perfectly marbled,” Andras said. “We’re not at the level yet where we can enhance the nutriceutical profile of the product, but that’s very much in our plans.”