Meat, as they say, is what’s for dinner. And, more often than not, that’s the case. In fact, meat consumption increases every year at a steady pace. By the year 2050, meat eating will double, according to the Worldwatch Institute — meaning production will reach more 465 million tons of animal flesh.
Why the dramatic increase? One reason is a consequence of economic success: as developing nations emerge onto the world stage, they also increase their collective taste for meat. But the developed nations are a part of it as well. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, 50 years ago, the average person ate 48 pounds of beef annually — now it’s 88 pounds.
The downside, of course, is that meat is a tremendously resource intensive way to obtain your protein. This environmental cost is clearly illustrated in Brazil where healthy Amazonian rainforest is cleared to grow livestock for global consumers.
What if you could bypass the environmental impact of animal husbandry as well as the huge ethical considerations that are raised by the farming and slaughterhouse practices of the corporate food giants? What if you could just print meat in a clean lab?
Modern Meadow, a new biotech company in Columbia, Missouri, wants to do just that — generate 3D printed meat and leather-based goods. Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel is a believer. His Thiel Foundation is investing $350,000 to help the startup create leather products from animal cells with its innovative bioprinting technology.
Ultimately, Modern Meadow will move on to the more complex issue of printing meat for the dinner table.
So where’d the idea start? Actually, scientists have been testing bio-printing in regenerative medicine. The concept is to print up a new organ, like a kidney, if your own happens to fail.
In fact, Modern Meadow’s CEO, Andras Forgacs, is the son of Gabor Forgacs — the inventor of this medical concept. Gabor’s company, Organovo, devised a method to construct organs and tissues by printing them in three dimensions. Andras says that his new company is an extension of his father’s:
“The idea struck us that if we can make medical-grade tissues that are good enough for drug companies, good enough for patients, then certainly we can find other applications for tissue engineering.”
The process involves biopsying a living animal (a relatively harmless procedure), isolating the desired cells, growing large numbers of them, and preparing them into cell aggregates — spheres of tens of thousands of cells.
These aggregates can then become the raw material for more industrial processes. In the case of complete organs, that process is something like 3-D printing.
For calfskin — the product that Modern Meadow intends to turn out by the end of the year — it would resemble something more like regular printing or weaving. The end result will be a hairless, pre-tanned, soft, smooth, chemical- and waste-free material in any color or pattern.
Bioprinted leather products and meat will be marketed to people — like many vegetarians and some religious groups — who decline meat and animal products based upon ethical concerns. In addition, populations that historically without access to safe meat production may also be served by bioprinting.
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