Why you should care
Because this biologist thinks you could soon be able to eat bacon without killing a pig.
It’s summer, when thoughts turn to backyard barbecues and the smell of perfectly grilled burgers. Love the taste but not the idea of slaughtering animals? Listen up.
Canadian bioengineer Isha Datar is on a mission to provide omnivores with meat in a more humane and eco-friendly way: by growing it in a lab.
The 26-year-old is the director of New Harvest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit promoting the advancement of in vitro meat grown from animal cells. The firm brings together people from 14 different countries who believe slaughtering animals is cruel and that the traditional meat industry exacts a heavy toll on the environment.
The meat on my plate is just a collection of tissues, and there are two ways of getting tissues.
— Isha Datar
Livestock uses 70 percent of all agricultural land and accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 8 percent of human water usage. As the world’s population continues to expand, meat production is expected to more than double by 2050.
Alarming statistics, and yet most people aren’t ready to trade steak for tofu or start eating bugs, and that includes Datar. “I’m a meat lover,” she says unapologetically. “Growing up in a town in Alberta, the beef-producing part of Canada, meat was the feature in most meals.”
The daughter of a doctor and a sculptor, Datar inherited her parents’ scientific curiosity and creativity but didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps. “He was always trying to fix problems. It wasn’t proactive or creative. I wanted to solve something from the root,” she says. So she studied cell and molecular biology at the University of Alberta.
When a university teacher mentioned the concept of cultured meat, she was instantly intrigued, she says, eager to “[create] a solution from scratch, instead of having to rely on changes in behavior.”
She wrote a paper on the subject and sent it to Jason Matheny, the founder of New Harvest. He loved it, and soon she was communicating with prominent bioengineers who encouraged her to publish.
While working toward a master’s in biotechnology at the University of Toronto, Datar began giving talks on lab-grown meat to anyone who would listen. “I really felt the idea had to get out there,” she says.
Last spring, on the day she was interviewing to become director of New Harvest, her TED Talk came out — she got the job.
Since then, she and her journalist husband have been based in Toronto, and Datar helps a community of roughly 80 scientists and volunteers connect with like-minded peers to collaborate and secure funds for their research. Most already receive money from universities or governments but, according to Datar, it’s not enough. So far, she has helped raise $69,000 in grants for different initiatives, the latest one from Stanford University.
And she continues to be a public advocate, a role she admits is not easy given how strongly people feel about meat. But Datar’s down-to-earth style allows her to convey complex ideas with eloquence and without sounding patronizing.
“The way I see it, the meat on my plate is just a collection of tissues, and there are two ways of getting tissues,” she says. “One is to grow a whole organism and the other is to grow just a part from the smallest living thing: cells. The second option doesn’t require an animal to suffer and produce waste.”
Indeed, estimates show that lab-grown meat could produce up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat. But is it really possible to grow a hamburger in a petri dish?
Absolutely. Tissue engineering is currently used primarily for medical purposes — growing skin, veins, even ears — but it can also be employed to grow animal muscle.
Last year, New Harvest’s Mark Post, from Maastricht University, produced the world’s first lab-grown burger by taking stem cells from a cow and growing them in a culture medium. Testers said it tasted like meat but was less juicy because of the lack of fat — an aspect Post is now working on.
Then there’s Modern Meadow, a private company under New Harvest’s umbrella that is developing in vitro meat by using a 3-D printer with a cartridge of bio-ink made of live cells that, once printed in the preferred shape, fuse to form living tissue.
It might be a good idea, but the market is not ready — people won’t trust the product.
— Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst at the NPD Group
The advancements are promising, but cultured food will face a number of challenges, chiefly consumer acceptance. The idea of test-tube flesh makes organic foodies queasy, and only 20 percent of Americans say they are willing to eat it.
For Datar, it’s just a matter of framing the issue clearly. “Cultured meat is not synthetic,” she says. “We need to change people’s image from scary labs to something like beer breweries.”
But industry experts are not convinced that marketing efforts will do the trick. “It might be a good idea, but the market is not ready — people won’t trust the product,” says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst at the NPD Group, a consultancy. “I don’t see it happening unless the price was very cheap.”
And for now, that’s not the case. Dr. Post’s 5-ounce hamburger cost $330,000 to produce, and a recent paper on biotechnology trends estimates that, even with large-scale production, cultured meat would be pricey because a couple of pounds would require at least $10 worth of the liquid needed for the cells to grow, plus several highly educated, technical employees.
But Datar insists prices will become competitive over time. “Meat costs can only go up from here,” she notes. And as for timing, “It will depend on how much money goes into research,” she says, “but I’d say we could have it in supermarkets in 20 years.”
The key to making it happen, Datar believes, is funding more research and growing New Harvest’s interdisciplinary community. Which is why, in 2015, she is organizing the first symposium on “Tissue Engineered Nutrition” and plans to showcase cell-cultured meat at the World’s Fair in Milan.
Don’t expect to see “In Vitro Roast” on restaurant menus quite yet, but Datar is determined to give the world more food for thought.