WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
If we can take cells from an animal and grow meat from those cells then we can do it with any animal – including humans …
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The world faces a food crisis, and now there’s a new solution – eating yourself. Literally. Welcome to the fricking weird world that is the future. Over the past few years companies around the world have been growing animal free meat using nothing more than animal cells grown in cellular cultures in bioreactors. And they’ve been very successful – whether it’s growing fillet steaks, bacon, beef, chicken, duck, pork belly, and turkey or salmon and tuna steaks or all manner of other meats. However, this method works with any animal cells which also opens the door to ethical zebra burgers and even authentic T-Rex burgers.
Now though, in a sick and actually incorrect twist which we’ll discuss in a minute, a group of American scientists and designers have developed a concept for a grow-your-own steak kit using human cells and blood to question the ethics of the cultured meat industry. In short, they’ve created mini human burgers. Yes, you heard that right.
Ouroboros Steak could be grown by the diner at home using their own cells, which are harvested from the inside of their cheek and fed serum derived from expired, donated blood. The resulting bite-sized pieces of meat, currently on display as prototypes at the Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition, are created entirely without causing harm to animals. The creators argued this cannot be said about the growing selection of cultured meat made from animal cells.
Despite the lab-grown meat industry claiming to offer a more sustainable, cruelty-free alternative to factory farming, the process still relies on foetal bovine serum (FBS) as a protein-rich growth supplement for animal cell cultures. And this is where their “good” intentions go awry because efforts are already under way in the UK to create synthetic proteins that eliminate the need to use FBS.
Human burgers – literally. Courtesy: Ouroboros Steaks
FBS, which costs around £300 to £700 per litre, is derived from the blood of calf foetuses after their pregnant mothers are slaughtered by the meat or dairy industry. So lab-grown meat remains a by product of polluting agricultural practices, much like regular meat. For now.
“Foetal bovine serum costs significant amounts of money and the lives of animals,” said scientist Andrew Pelling, who developed the Ouroboros Steak with industrial designer Grace Knight and artist and researcher Orkan Telhan.
“Although some lab-grown meat companies are claiming to have solved this problem, to our knowledge no independent, peer-reviewed, scientific studies have validated these claims,” Pelling continued.
“As the lab-grown meat industry is developing rapidly, it is important to develop designs that expose some of its underlying constraints in order to see beyond the hype.”
Ouroboros Steak, named after the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail, cuts out the need for other animals by drawing exclusively on human blood and cells.
The version on display at London’s Design Museum was made using human cell cultures, which can be purchased for research and development purposes from the American Tissue Culture Collection (ATCC). They were fed with human serum derived from expired blood donations that would otherwise have been discarded or incinerated.
Amuse-bouche-sized steaks are preserved in resin and laid out on a plate complete with a placemat and silverware as a tongue-in-cheek nod to American diner culture.
As part of the DIY kit, the team envisions users collecting cells from the inside of their own cheek using a cotton swab and depositing them onto pre-grown scaffolds made from mushroom mycelium.
For around three months, these are stored in a warm environment such as a low-temperature oven and fed with human serum until the steak is fully grown.
“Expired human blood is a waste material in the medical system and is cheaper and more sustainable than FBS, but culturally less-accepted. People think that eating oneself is cannibalism, which technically this is not,” said Knight.
“Our design is scientifically and economically feasible but also ironic in many ways,” Telhan added.
“We are not promoting ‘eating ourselves’ [in short: cannibalism] as a realistic solution that will fix humans’ protein needs. We rather ask a question: what would be the sacrifices we need to make to be able to keep consuming meat at the pace that we are? In the future, who will be able to afford animal meat and who may have no other option than culturing meat from themselves?”
Although only Singapore and the US have so far approved clean meat for sale the market is estimated to be worth $206 million and expected to grow to $572 million by 2025, largely due to the increasing environmental and ethical concerns about the mass rearing of livestock for human consumption. And, as a sign of “faith” in the industry China last year placed a $300 million order for clean meat products with Israeli company Aleph Farms who claimed a while ago to have been the first company to make a lab grown steak.
Then, of course we have other companies who are focusing their efforts elsewhere such and have focused on substituting meat entirely, with Novameat, for example, creating a 3D printed steak from vegetable proteins.
All of which then brings us full circle – as we change the way we produce food we’re going to have some increasingly odd choices to make, but the upshot of all this is that even as scientists do, in some cases justifiably, try and draw attention to some of this new industries oddities we have an increasingly affordable and sustainable way to feed the 11 billion people who will inhabit our planet in 2050 and avoid cataclysmic “food wars” and large scale famine without ever having to kill a single animal. That is once the synthetic protein has been developed anyways …