Interview with Dr. Mark PostFMP
Is growing meat at home a possibility?
Yes, technically speaking growing meat from your home can be done. The process to grow cultured meat from stem-cells is something a person with no background could learn to do in roughly a week. The setup required to grow is also something a DIY person could make or someone who is less DIY could order and setup at home—bioreactor, incubator and petri dishes to name a few of the materials. The two biggest issues with a home setup are firstly, you need to have enough space to house these machines. It would require about the same amount of space as backyard vegetable garden (about 100sq meters). This wouldn’t be a problem for somebody who lived in the countryside, however, for people in a city this would be a major challenge. Secondly, growing meat is more demanding than a vegetable garden due to the machines that are involved. If a machine broke, you’d have to either be knowledgeable enough to fix it yourself, or there would have to be technicians readily available to fix machines as they break. (This is an interesting problem because it could create a new field for employment).
The larger issue about growing meat at home, is why? What is the incentive that is driving people to want to do this? In order for this to be a success, there is going to need to be a good scenario that makes it worth the effort or that will require people in the future to do this. A great example is bread machines—all the rage about 10 years ago, but eventually this failed because the results yielded did not outweigh the effort involved in making your bread at home instead of getting it from the store. The design here becomes less about the product and more about how to incentivise people to WANT to grow their own meat. One potential future scenario is that robots have taken over all of our jobs so we have ample time that we need to fill and growing meat becomes a time-filling hobby.
Advancements necessary for cost-effective production.
The most resource heavy part of the current process driving the cost of cultured meat is the density at which the cells can grow. It’s a linear equation that by increasing the density of cells you can grow in a set volume of fluid will drive down price. For example, currently, there are 10million cells per 1mL of fluid and the cost of 1 hamburger at this density is $10. They are working on 40million cells per 1mL which would drive the costs down to $2.50 per hamburger. When the processes have been properly transitioned to larger bio-reactors, the industrial process will resemble a microbrewery using 25,000L bio-reactor tanks and an automated tissue growth system. This is the simplest answer for using the technologies that are currently available.
The second advancement requires discovering how to incorporate the cell-growth process into the tissue development process, similar to how organs grow within a human body (essentially, bodies are super efficient and powerful bio-reactors). Currently, the cell-growth happens in a bioreactor and once the cells are ready they are transported to petri dishes for part two of the process which is tissue development. Everything that is grown suspended in a bio-reactor is less dense than what can be organically grown in a tissue, therefore growing within tissue would be an ideal solve. Being able to combine the processes into one machine would be the ideal solve for the future, but the biology for how to do this currently does not exist, but is being investigated. Ideally one could plug in the stem cells and a steak comes out.
The third area where price can be saved is by recycling the waste that gets emitted in the growth system. The water, leftover nutrients and particles of this nature can be reused from one growth system to another. Waste materials can also be repurposed as fertilisers due to that fact they are very nitrogen-rich.
Alternatives to foetal serums
130 years ago, a French scientist was able to keep cells alive outside of the body by adding calf blood to the dish of cells. Before this discovery there had been zero success in keeping cells alive, despite using dozens of base solutions. However, this is an unsustainable method for growing cells on many levels. Firstly, regulatory agencies would never approve of its use on an industrial consumption scale due to the fact that there are too many undefined elements when using blood in serums. Secondly, relating to undefined elements, the possibilities for disease become far too high. The third issue is around sustainability and animal welfare issues not being solved because a demanding number of cattle (specifically calves) would still need to be farmed and slaughtered to keep up the production of blood-serums. For these three main reasons, alternatives are being developed.
Serums have 10,000 amino acids, proteins and nutrients in them, but only 4 or 5 of these are actually needed for cell growth. By identifying which of these are needed by these specific muscle tissue cells we can then make only those 4 or 5 in an efficient manner. It is a very cheap and efficient process once the proteins have been identified—currently, there’s great success with doing this for the growth of yeast and different bacterias.
Urbanisation having an impact on cultured meat.
Urbanisation has seen a worldwide explosion that has zero trend of slowing down. This has had and will continue to have a huge impact on the culture of eating and cooking. In the urban lifestyle people spend more and more time eating out vs. cooking dinner at home. Maybe this is because kitchens and homes are smaller, maybe it’s a social cause or maybe it’s just a combo of it all—moving to an urban city requires the want to be close to people, which backs the idea that you’d rather be out and about in the midst of the population vs. at home.
That being said, growing meat at home doesn’t fit well into this model—it’s against the trend. If you’re eating out more frequently, you have no purpose for a machine to grow meat in your kitchen, odds are your kitchen is storage for snacks and booze (no scientific proof to the snacks and booze, but I’ve grown up my whole life in a huge urban city). When you need a meal, you turn to a deli if you need it quickly or a restaurant if you have time to sit down. Also, another driver of eating out is that with urbanisation comes multiculturalism and people want to easily be able to eat from all over the world.
However, urbanisation still supports the scenario of meat growing at the restaurant and community level. Micro-breweries for culturing meat can be setup within communities that can supply delis, restaurants, and the few times a month you want to cook at home. These micro-breweries could even be setup attached to a restaurant—walk to the brewery tanks to pick out your cut of meat growing in the bioreactors for your dinner.
Is this just the ‘Silicon Valley’ answer?
Of course, you could identify this as the unrealistic silicon valley answer, but that does not define much. This is the technological answer to a problem that can be solved in many different ways. Historically there is not an example of a technology that is technically possible to solve a problem that is stopped in development because it seems unrealistic. For example, navigation systems in cars—initially people had huge fears and uncertainties about using them, and they were hugely criticised due to being completely unnecessary. People feared blindly following a map, “how will we know where to go if we follow without plotting on a real map?” However, despite this, navigation systems pushed on and now turning to something like Google Maps is the absolute norm. Technology has a way of following its own course and is a force that we cannot stop due to it being driven by human curiosity. Like when we sailed east to India just because we knew the land must be out there, but had no clue or concern for how it would impact the present, the future or if they’d ever even be able to sail back home. It is an inherent trait in humans to see what is out there or what is possible, therefore technology takes its own path and there are not concerns of whether something is unrealistic in the now or not. What is scary and unknown is the driving force behind trying technology and developing it. We have a problem, we have a solution, not let’s just see what would happen.