Test tube beef inches closer to reality as demand for meat rises

Professor Mark Post (right) works on creating the world’s first lab-grown beef burger at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Inset: A sample of lab-grown meat in a petri dish at the university. Photo/AFP
Professor Mark Post (right) works on creating the world’s first lab-grown beef burger at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Inset: A sample of lab-grown meat in a petri dish at the university. Photo/AFP 

First came the test tube babies that provided a solution to couples with fertility problems and now here comes the test tube meat.

In vitro meat or cultured beef as it is sometimes referred to is not got from animals born through artificial insemination but rather grown in a culture of animal stem cells. Since 2000 scientists have been looking into the possibilities of growing meat in laboratories with most research being conducted in the US and Netherlands.

Commercialisation of test tube meat, which was set to begin with the public sale of the first burger at a food fair in London on Monday, provides an alternative to the increased demand expected with doubling of the world’s population by 2050.

At the event, according to AFP, scientists unveiled the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, frying it in a little oil and butter and serving it to volunteers in what they hope is the start of a food revolution.

The burger was developed at a cost of more than 250,000 euros ($330,000) with support from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Tasters described it as “close to meat” in flavour and texture but not as juicy.

The scientists and researchers anticipate that after the successful launch it will be possible to have cultured meat sold in supermarkets as early as five years from now.

Even though the cost of commercialisation of cultured meat is yet to be determined, it may not feature as an alternative for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

A study by the international food policy research institute assessing the impact of climate change on agriculture estimates that global food prices are expected to increase in the next three decades.

According to the study the prices of wheat, rice and maize will rise between 121 per cent and 194 per cent by 2050 due to climate change.

Even without considering the effects of climate change prices of beef products are expected to go up by 33 per cent in 2050 and when this impact is included the costs are expected to be 60 per cent more.

Speaking to theBusiness Daily Iain Wright, director of the Animal Science for Sustainable Productivity at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) said that there was already an increase in demand for livestock products in the region.

“At the moment we see in Africa a huge increase in demand for meat, milk and eggs with the main question being where this demand will be supplied from,” he said.

Demand for livestock products is made worse by the continent’s increasing urbanisation, with more than one billion people expected to live in urban centres by 2050.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Statistics show that Africa is a net importer of livestock products with seven per cent and 15 per cent of the total being meat and dairy products consumed annually respectively.

Mr Wright said that the general increase in global food prices in the next three decades would make it difficult for the region to import these products from other parts of the world to feed the rise in demand.

“As population rises and people move from rural areas to the cities the demand for livestock products increases,” he added. “This creates a need for investment in the sector to boost the outputs produced basically by increasing the availability of feed.”

The need to increase livestock population in order to meet current and future demands has created undue competition for plant materials used in production of feed.

Most animal feed in the region is made from crop residues mainly stalks and straws which play a vital role in the restoration of soils that have been degraded over time.

With human population expected to double by the 2050 and the spotlight focused on Africa as the next global food basket various stakeholders are encouraging the uptake of modern agricultural technologies like conservation system that calls for a permanent organic soil cover.

“Many parts of Africa are currently faced with this challenge of improving the soils and leaving crop residues on the farms after harvest, which is what smallholder farmers are being urged to do, increases the soil’s organic matter and improves the water holding capacity,” said ILRI boss.

Researchers have already begun looking at ways of reducing this competition and promoting effectively using crop residue.

Plant breeders are conducting research on ways to improve the nutritional value of the materials in order to reduce the need for large quantities of biomass in the manufacture of feed. The ILRI boss said that the range of solutions that can be employed to avert the crisis depends mainly on availability of land and population density.

This, he adds, could be done by increasing the production of forage crops in areas where competition for land to grow food is low like in densely populated areas.

“Researchers are identifying feed surplus and deficit areas and trying to select, breed and disseminate improved crops for human consumption and whose  residue can be used to make better feed for livestock,” said Mr Wright.

Smallholder farmers are also being encouraged to increase the total plant residue produced in the farms by double cropping.

This not only provides an opportunity for increased food yield but also produces more residue post-harvest that could be used in the manufacture of livestock feed.

Not only is there a need to make more feed to boost production of milk, eggs, meat, poultry and sausages, the continent must find ways to protect existing livestock from effects of climate change.

Several parts of the continent have already begun to experience high temperatures from the effect of greenhouse gases in addition to the erratic rainfall patterns.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development projects that this could lead to increased spread of existing diseases and the emergence of new ones apart from cases of heat related death and illnesses.