Re-Inventing The Food Chain (or "On Food Prices, In Vitro Meat, and GM Livestock Feed")

Given the price of grain, and a dislike of genetically modified crops, Europe might soon be eating meat grown in a vat.  Stay with me:

The press is full of noise about the price of food.  Whatever the real impact of biofuels production on food prices -- which is probably very hard to pin down quantitatively -- the grain surplus we have enjoyed for decades is now over and demand exceeds supply.  This condition is probably permanent, and in order to keep the economy running we need to figure out how to get more production out of limited arable land.  This in turn raises the issue of improving yields and overall harvest through the use of genetically modified crops.  GM crops are widely grown and consumed in the Americas, but have met with governmental and consumer resistance elsewhere.

The general embrace by U.S. farmers of GM crops, and contemporaneous rejection of those crops by European consumers, produces interesting complexities within markets.  While the European region is presently a net food exporter, much of the feed for European livestock and poultry comes from the Americas.  Yet the strict safety testing and labeling requirements for food or feed containing GM plants amounts to a European zero-tolerance policy for importation of GM products.  While GM sugar beets and some varieties of GM corn may be officially approved for sale in Europe, consumers appear to avoid products with the GM label.

This policy has fascinating secondary consequences, namely that it is on track to force dramatic reductions in European livestock production due to increasing fractions of GM feed grains.  In an article in the October 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology, "Europe's anti-GM stance to presage animal feed shortage?" (the full text of which you can find online here, PDF here), Peter Mitchell writes:

...If a solution isn't found, European farmers will be forced into wholesale slaughter of their livestock rather than have the animals starve. Europe will then have to import huge quantities of animal products from elsewhere—ironically, most of it from animals raised on the very same GM feeds that Europe has not approved.

Mitchell cites a report from the European commission that production of meat could fall by between 1 and 44 percent over the next two years, depending on actual supplies of non-GM feed.  Changes in attitude that produce a marketing environment friendlier to GM products may alleviate this problem.  Yet consumer resistance to GM products in Europe is both deep and broad.  Even in the face of economic hardship, brought on by reduced food exports and increased domestic prices, consumers and interest groups may take many years to change their minds.

The New York Times reports that pressure is growing in Europe to change policies on GM crops.  According to an article by Andrew Pollack in the 21 April, NYT:

In Britain, the National Beef Association, which represents cattle farmers, issued a statement this month demanding that “all resistance” to such crops “be abandoned immediately in response to shifts in world demand for food, the growing danger of global food shortages and the prospect of declining domestic animal production.”

Despite these pressures, Pollack writes that, "Since the beginning of the year France has banned the planting of genetically modified corn while Germany has enacted a law allowing for foods to be labeled as “G.M. free.”"

So, in a world with declining GM-free feedstocks, where is Europe going to get GM-free meat?  The science fiction vision of meat grown in vats could be economically relevant sooner than one might think.

Earlier this month at Wired News, Alexis Madrigal wrote about the recent In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway.  A report was presented that claimed, "Meat grown in giant tanks known as bioreactors would cost between $5,200-$5,500 a ton (3,300 to 3,500 euros)" -- more or less competitive with current European beef prices."  Madrigal reports that according to Jason Matheny at Johns Hopkins University, "The general consensus is that minced meat or ground meat products -- sausage, chicken nuggets, hamburgers -- those are within technical reach.  We have the technology to make those things at scale with existing technology."  Matheny is the founder of New Harvest, a non-profit working on producing meat substitutes.

Madrigal's story carried a skeptical tone, and suggested that commercialized in vitro meat was probably many years away.  I have been wondering whether the market would, um, serve up cultured meat sooner than that, and this week brought an interesting surprise.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) just announced a US$ 1 million prize for, "The first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices."  It may not be long before PETA writes that check.

If it is already possible to produce "meat-like products" at prices competitive with those in Europe today, then continued increases in the price of products grown on the hoof or claw should make in vitro meat even more attractive economically.  The feedstocks for meat cells grown in culture would be fairly basic, just sugars and amino acids, and possibly some lipids.  These in turn can be produced by plants, yeast, and bacteria.  In principle, a co-culture of non-GM animal cells and hacked/engineered microbes that serve as feeder cells could provide a fairly high-efficiency conversion of sunlight to meat.  That might not pass muster in Europe, but it would probably sell like hotcakes Big Macs in other countries.  And how could you tell the difference?

Pushing further down this road, how long will it be before an iGEM team produces a circuit that facilitates the differentiation and culture of stem cells from fowl, fish, and mammals to produce a better burger?  I suppose an intermediary step is to hack filamentous E. coli so that it grows to have the texture of muscle tissue for minced meat.  Those clever undergrads have already made coli smell like bananas and mint, so why not add a few more metabolic products: "Yum! Tastes just like chicken!"  Or lamb.  Or yak.  Yuck. You could even enjoy a nice "coliburger" ("bactoburger"?) that intentionally contained bacteria and not have to worry about kidney and liver damage.  (Oh, yes, this is waaaay more fun than finishing the last chapter of my book.)

Just as long as our in vitro meat isn't actually made of people (see 1:34:29).  Can't wait for the t-shirt.