From stem cell to steak
Meat production consumes a lot of resources. And for a wide variety of reasons, people are eating less meat or even giving it up entirely. A growing number of companies are therefore looking into alternative methods of producing meat – for example, in a lab. But the path from petri dish to the perfect steak is a major challenge.
Monday, November 1, 2021
Plant-based alternatives have existed for a long time. The first bean- and soy-based burgers were available in the 1970s. The recipes for plant-based “meat products” have refined and fine-tuned in the meantime. But there’s one basic problem: It is extremely difficult to imitate the structure of meat. Plant cells and muscle cells are fundamentally different. While muscles are elastic and pliable, plant cells are stiff and non-pliable. The ETH spin-off, planted, has tackled this problem and developed plant-based “chicken” that mimics the meat structure as closely as possible using the extruder process.
But the typical meat flavor, especially for beef, is very difficult to achieve. There is a very complex chemical reaction behind this flavor that is activated when the meat is cooked, and researchers still do not fully understand it. Animal meat gets its red color and characteristic iron aroma from blood cells. The company Impossible Foods managed to achieve both characteristics through the addition of “heme,” a blood-like red coloring agent extracted from the roots of soy plants.
Meat from a petri dish
In order to convince ardent meat eaters to try alternatives, products need to look like meat, taste like meat and be affordable. For this reason, more and more food producers are researching “artificial” meat alternatives in the lab – known as “cultured meat.” The first lab-based hamburger was created in 2013 and eaten on live TV. Since then, dozens of companies around the world have been researching cultured meat. The idea behind this research is to use a very small tissue sample from a cow to extract what are known as satellite cells. This involves a type of muscle stem cell that produces new muscle mass in the event of an injury.
The satellite cells are placed in a petri dish, where they stimulated to grow. This requires a medium that provides the stem cells with nutrition and continuously induces them to reproduce. In the future, such “culture mediums” will be made from plant materials, such as certain plant proteins. Extracting these and other necessary materials, like vitamins and amino acids, in large quantities requires biotechnological processes.
Megatrend: Resource scarcity, Ecology
Ultimately, it may soon no longer be necessary for animals to die in order to produce entire steaks. This is what an Israeli company, Aleph Farms managed to do at the end of 2018. To date, Singapore is the only country in the world to approve a meat product made in a petri dish for sale. It remains to be seen whether European consumers will be interested in meat alternatives made in a lab. As a survey conducted by sotomo revealed, consumers are still hesitant.
The reduced use of plant protection products is causing much smaller wheat and rapeseed harvests. A study carried out by Swiss Agricultural Research reveals that such crop failures can only be offset by state subsidies. This is neither sustainable nor resource-efficient.
The economic interdependence of the world has increased greatly over the past years and decades. Due to the brisk trade activity between the continents, invasive plant and animal species are also spreading faster and faster. This can lead to serious problems for native vegetation and agriculture. According to the FOEN, the canton of Ticino is particularly affected.
Invasive pests and plant diseases are among the greatest challenges for biodiversity and agriculture. They often enter Switzerland via travel and imported goods and cause great damage to cultivated and wild plants. Since 2020, the import of plants from non-EU countries is prohibited. However, introduced pests are a worldwide problem.
The Japanese beetle was first discovered in Switzerland in 2017 in Ticino. Now it has made it to the northern side of the Alps. After being found in Basel-Stadt and Solothurn, a larger population of the beetles has been found in Kloten for the first time. They are controlled with traps, but also pesticides.