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22 Oct, 2021 06:42

In 30 years, real meat will only be available in illegal places – 1st stem-cell burger creator

The Earth’s population is growing and so is the demand for food. Will we be able to sustain the planet when there are twice as many of us, and not completely destroy the environment? We talked to a man who has presented the first lab-grown hamburger to the world, Professor of Vascular Physiology of Maastricht University Mark Post.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Post, it's really great to have you on our program today. Welcome. 

Mark Post: Thank you. 

SS: So a lot of questions regarding meat. Some say, artificial meat, some say it’s real meat... Let’s start from – 

MP: I would say the last. 

SS: Ok. So let's start with the simplest question, I guess, for the dummies. How does making or growing meat in a lab work? You take a cell sample from a cow, you bring it to a lab, put it into a bioreactor, feed it all the necessary nutrients and liquids – and then what?  

MP: Right. Well, that's pretty much it. So you take a sample from a cow, you extract the stem cells from that sample. So every muscle has stem cells, and they're sitting there to repair tissue. And they can proliferate. So they can divide many, many times. And then because these are muscle-specific stem cells, they already kind of know how to make muscle tissue. So you let them proliferate until you have many, many cells, then you let them make that tissue. And then after three weeks, you harvest that tissue and you put it into the hamburger… 

SS: You take it from any muscle or any particular one? 

MP: You can pretty much take it from any muscle, yes. 

SS: So how do you synthesize the nutrients? Like basically, what do you feed it? Do you feed natural nutrients to the cell that you're growing? Or is it something synthetic also? 

MP: No, it's natural nutrients, it's sugars, amino acids to build proteins, vitamins, minerals, fatty acid, and that's it. So it's all natural ingredients. And they can all be sourced from plants. 

SS: Because I'm thinking, like with regular food, you have beef or chicken that are fed antibiotics, and all those things – 

MP: Right. 

SS: –  so that they look prettier and bigger, and then you have free range. So if we talk about your meat, your lab meat, which category does it fall into? 

MP: Well, you know, some people call it ‘clean meat’, because you know exactly what's in there, you can control it. So no antibiotics, no other kind of ingredients that shouldn't be in there. So you can exactly control it. And there's no contamination, of course, because bacteria can never get into this system. So I would actually call it more organic. But of course, it's made in the lab and not in the fields. 

SS: Do you have any control over the way it actually tastes? I mean, can you take away all the cancer-causing things that are in regular meat or infuse the meat with any taste?  

MP: Yeah, of course. Yeah, I mean, taste is something you have to realise that all the hamburgers that you have ever eaten are flavoured, so flavours are added to it. And we are going to do exactly the same. So you add kind of a hamburger flavour to it. That's what you already do with regular meat so we are going to do the same. 

SS: Those flavours are exactly the ones that are used in the kitchens of restaurants? Same flavours? 

MP: Yes, or in the manufacturer of hamburgers from regular meat. 

SS: Can you also add like extra vitamins to the meat so that it’s super good for you? 

MP: Of course, you can. Yeah, you can. And you talked about cancer. There are two health risks with eating too much meat. One is risk for cardiovascular disease that comes from the saturated fatty acids in the fat. We, of course, plan to make fat tissue, we're also making fat tissue. And these cells actually can make unsaturated fatty acids. So they can do that. And then we find a way to do that and the meat is actually healthier for you. The other risk is a slightly increased risk for colorectal cancer in regular meat if you eat a lot of meat. That's why the World Health Organization came with a recommendation that you should not eat more than 300 grams of red meat per week, which is not a lot. So that's about … 

SS: A steak and a half? 

MP: Yeah, for a whole week. The component in red meat that causes that increased risk for colorectal cancer is actually unknown. So as long as that's not really well-known, we cannot fix it. One of the components that has been incriminated is myoglobin, which colours the meat red because it's red meat that causes this increased risk. And fortunately, we can exactly determine how much of that myoglobin we want to have in that meat because it's dependent on at which oxygen level you culture it. 

SS: And then it's like a certain level of myoglobin that wouldn’t be of any risk to a human? 

MP: Yeah. So I'm actually fine with that recommendation of 300 grammes of red meat per week. 

SS: Aren’t you a meat lover at all. Why did you even start doing this? 

MP: I am a meat lover. Yes. But I don't need meat really a lot. I could work with 300 grammes. 

SS: Okay. So when you started doing that, initially, how did it happen? You woke up one morning and like, ‘Why don’t we just grow meat in the lab and make it healthier or tastier?’ 

MP: Unfortunately, it's not that romantic. The idea of doing this is already very old. Winston Churchill actually refers to it in 1932. And in the Netherlands, in 2004 or something, there was a guy who stood up and said, we should do this, we should no longer talk about it and just do it. He was not a scientist. So he had to recruit a couple of scientists to start working on this. It took another two years before I became part of it, and then I thought it was actually a great idea, mostly for the environment. Let's pursue this. 

SS: And for the animals too. You're saying a single cell could produce up to 10,000 kilogrammes of meat. So it's like, I don't know, one cow is enough for Australia or something like that? How is it possible? 

MP: Well, that's because the cells have a tremendous replicative capacity. So they can divide many, many times. And if you do the calculations, now, currently, we are not at that stage yet, but if you do the calculations, if every cell doubles 40 times, it's like kind of an exponential curve. So after 40 doublings, you have like 10,000 kilos of meat. 

SS: Just theoretically, how long till we get there? 

MP: Well, the first kind of products, I think, will be on the market in two, two and a half years from now. 

SS: I'm talking about one cow actually being enough for a country. 

MP: I don't know. Currently, we calculate that from half a gramme of tissue that we take from a cow, we can make 2000 kilos. So that's already kind of a big step up. And you can take multiple samples from a cow, but that would not get you to one cow for entire Australia, you have to step up from there. But actually, that's only five or six doublings more to get there. So we are now at 32. If we are at around 38-40, we’re already there. 

SS: So when we talk about lab-grown meat, we're only talking about hamburgers as of now. But I mean, people's tastes are very diverse. Not everyone is a hamburger-lover like ourselves. They will want steak and filet and all that, like a T-bone. What can you make, maybe not today, but theoretically, a meat like a T-bone steak? 

MP: Yes, theoretically we can. To make the meat we do – minced meat – you rely on the self-organisation of those cells, so those cells can make a tissue. You have to help them a little bit, but then they can make a tissue. But there's a limit to how large they can be. for minced meat it's fine, for hamburgers and for meatballs it's fine. To make a steak, you need to do three more things. One is to impose a larger 3-D structure on those cells. Otherwise, they just make their small thing. So that's where 3-D printing comes in, biomaterials. You need to culture muscle cells and fat cells in exactly the same condition. Currently, we do that separately. And most importantly, you need a channel system to get all the nutrients and oxygen in all the right places. That's why you and I have blood vessels. But if we make this into a meat product, we need to have a similar thing like blood vessels to make sure that all these nutrients and oxygen are distributed evenly throughout the tissue. 

SS: But I mean, ultimately you would strive for that to have all kinds of meat products grown in the lab? 

MP: Yes. Absolutely. So once those hamburgers start rolling off the conveyor belt, we start developing steaks. 

SS: Right now you're only growing beef. Can you do the same with chicken or pork or fish? 

MP: Yes. And in fact, some people are doing that. Some other companies worldwide are working on either with pork, chicken, duck, fish. Same thing, same principle. 

SS: When you eat real meat you can either go for this super tasty, A+++ Argentinian meat steak or you can just have steak. And you can tell the difference because it tastes different. What are we talking about, like your lab and eventually making all meat products, would it only taste like the top-notch Argentinian steak? Or are you going to have gradations as well? 

MP: Well, you can make it any way you want. What I think is an advantage of this technology – and not many people see it as a real advantage – is that you can make it the same every time, you can make it kind of standardised, and it sounds boring. But most people want to have some predictability of what they buy when you get it from the supermarket. Here in the Netherlands we have meat as a byproduct of dairy. So the cows are already pretty old when we get the meat, and there's no predictability of what the quality of our meat is, like in Argentina there is but here in the Netherlands, there's not, I don't know how it is in Russia. But here it's not. And I personally hate that. If I pay a lot of money for a steak, I want it to be good. I don't mind paying a lot of money for it but I need to be sure that it's okay. And if it's not good, I'm really disappointed. So I think this kind of guaranteed quality that you can deliver is a big plus. 

SS: The hamburger that is lab-grown is around $1,000 now? Why is it so expensive? 

MP: There's a good reason for that. It's the current – So this is, in essence, a medical technology that we're using. So all the ingredients that we use, like the amino acids, the nutrients are pharma grade, they are made for the pharmaceutical industry. And that's why it's really expensive. And in the end it’s just sugar and amino acids and a couple of natural components. So if you source them from a different source and not a medical source, it becomes a lot cheaper. 

SS: But when you say that in the next two, three years, let's even say, the next decade, lab-grown meat is going to be basically market competitive, are you sure that you're going to be able to make that in the quantities so that it can compete with the meat that’s out there? 

MP: Right. Well, that's a challenge, because it's a huge industry, of course, and to start building those factories and, you know, the bioreactors and all that stuff will be a big enterprise. Now, of course, this will gradually grow, and, mind you, to get to that massive acceptance and massive consumption, the price needs to be low. And people need to massively accept it. I think we’ll see a transition period both from a consumer acceptance point of view, as from a production point of view, and hopefully that will kind of go in parallel. It's not our goal to become the biggest hamburger producer in the world. So we eventually licensed out this technology to companies who are building those factories and are also starting to produce. 

SS: Also I wonder why it takes so long to actually have this out there already for people who are willing to taste it or eat it because this whole vegan meat thing is booming right now. I mean that that company Beyond Meat a year ago went to the IPO, it was I think estimated over $13 billion and I’ve tasted it, a hamburger made of meat that was made out of peas. I couldn’t tell the difference. If I'd known that it was not real meat maybe I would have been like, ‘Yeah, I can see that it’s not real meat.’ But I had no clue and it was so good. So why is it that that's out there already and we're eating it and buying it and experiencing and experimenting. And then this is still like in the lab and two, three years maybe and maybe 10 years. Why is it so different in terms of getting it out there? 

MP: Well, for hamburgers, I think that's fine. I have not seen and it will also be very difficult to make a proper steak from a plant-based texturised protein, it's very, very difficult to do. To be honest, I don't think it can be done. So they will not be able to make the whole product line, if you like. And there's one company out there just who develops plant-based products like mayonnaise and egg and actually went into culturing meat because they also feel they cannot get all the way with their plant-based products. You can become vegetarian tomorrow. Even without plant-based meat substitutes, you can become vegetarian, a lot of people do that. But it's still a small minority, it's less than 5% of the population who is vegetarian, at least of the population who can afford to eat meat. And so apparently, it's something that is hardwired within us to crave for meat. And vegetarian products are not going to quite satisfy it in the same way. 

SS: Alright, so when we’re talking about mass production with the lab-produced meat. I'm thinking it's completely tangible and doable when we're talking about the Netherlands or any European country or America. But then the meat market is really booming mostly in third world countries, right? Do you see a lab-made meat street stall in Mumbai? 

MP: Well, Mumbai is a good example because that's a big meat-eating kind of island in India. And of course, in India, eating beef is not a very common thing, they call it ‘buffalo’ or something? And then it's essentially similar. But yeah, India is kind of slow in taking this up. China is now getting there. South Korea has been there already for a long time. So I see, yes, these countries. And of course, in China, it's helped by, you know, the flu epidemic in the pigs, the African flu. So these big developing nations with a big kind of increase in meat consumption in the next 30 years, they are going to adopt this, I'm pretty sure. 

SS: So you're saying this is very much market compatible within like… I'm going to say a decade, not 2-3 years. But people aren’t always keen to accept something that is artificial when they hear it first. So let's say we have on the same shelf in a restaurant a lab-grown hamburger and a hamburger of real beef and it's the same price. You really think people are going to go for the one that’s lab-grown? 

MP: Of course. 

SS: Why? There’s so many stereotypes in my head that need to be broken before I choose that... 

MP: Right. Okay, so the reason why I think they will choose for it? Everybody who eats meat, well, maybe not everybody, but a lot of people who eat meat, actually have a little bit of a problem with that, because they know by now, if you're reading newspapers, there's greenhouse gas emission associated to it, that, you know, slaughterhouses are not the most clean areas that you can find, that animals have to be killed for it. And quite frankly, our ethics are gradually moving towards not being so comfortable anymore, that animals are killed for our purpose. That's why the vegetarian, vegan movements do actually come up. And so we have always been able to push that in sort of a far dark corner of our conscience because there were no alternatives. Once there are alternatives, you can no longer do that. And you have to kind of accept, ‘oh, yeah, for that an animal has been killed’, and ‘oh, yeah, does greenhouse gas emission’… And here we have essentially the same product, same price, same quality, with none of those features. Oh, yeah, it's made in the lab. That in the beginning is scary. But in the end, it's not. 

SS: So do you think maybe in 20-30 years’ time, we're going to be able to eat real hamburgers or real steaks in super-secret places? And like, it's going to be super expensive? 

MP: Yes, I do. If at all you can, if you would still be allowed by our governments to eat that. Mind you in Europe some food products have been banned from the market based on animal welfare. 

SS: Well, foie gras, for instance, is banned in Manhattan.  

MP: Well, foie gras, fur is getting there. Caged eggs are no longer allowed in the EU, just on the basis of animal welfare. So at some point, when you have a credible alternative, the regulatory agencies or the governments have a tendency to step in and say, ‘Well, now we can no longer allow this’. 

SS: But who’s that that has to be in charge of telling people, ‘guys, we should really try our best’? Because right now still people are really craving everything natural, whether it's wood, or leather, or organic food or whatever you want. So when they hear ‘lab meat’, for them, I told you before the interview, in America they call it ‘Franken-meat’, and not the most flattering thing ever. But right now that's the case. 

MP: Which is historically incorrect. 

SS: Sure, I’ll take your word for it. But right now that's how it's called. So how do you get rid of that sort of disdain towards lab-meat? Who is to be in charge? You, professor, who was actually doing this or the president of America, Russia?

MP: Well, this is going to be – if you now look at the surveys, the sort of the market surveys, if you like, which is still kind of preliminary, the acceptance of this type of foods is actually increasing. Not only in the US, but also in Europe, in India, China. Towards about 50% of the people are saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we see this coming, and we accept that this will come’, that doesn't mean that in the supermarket, they are going to buy it, that's a different thing. So it will require some marketing, it will require, you know, storytelling, it may actually require very small-scale microbrewery type of manufacturing units that you can visit on Sundays, and that you can see how it's being made. So you kind of familiarise yourself with this process. 

SS: So you kind of have to campaign basically, right? 

MP: Yeah. But you know, my example is in the Netherlands, and you probably don't know that, but we have a sausage here in the Netherlands that's called the ‘frikandel’. 

SS: I know frikandel. I don’t eat it but I know it. 

MP: Right, well, but we have a specific one here in the Netherlands and in Belgium, it's very, very popular. Nobody knows what's in it. Nobody wants to know what's in it. 

SS: Even you? 

MP: I know what's in it. 

SS: What’s in it? 

MP: Right, I know what's in it. And it's actually a decent product, there's nothing wrong with the product. The fact is that there are all sorts of horror stories of what's in that product. And nobody actually wants to really know what's in it. So we are perfectly capable of eating things, that we don't exactly know how it's being made, or what it is. 

SS: As long as it tastes good.

MP: As long as it tastes good and as long as you develop over time – and it does take time – over time develop trust in that product, because you see other people eat it and they're fine, and then eventually… We are biologically programmed not to eat things that we don't know. If you go into the forest, and you pick mushrooms, and you make a soup out of it, and you don't know what you're doing, you have a 95% chance that you're poisoning yourself. So it's a very natural programme not to eat stuff that you don't know. And for every new food that comes onto the market, you have that same issue that you have to tell what it is, you have to explain, you have to kind of make it appetising and start somewhere. And then, of course, this is such a nice story to tell that we already have a lot of early adopters who said, ‘Well, yeah, of course, I think this is a great idea, I want to eat it.’ And then the rest will slowly follow. 

SS: Just a final question. Do you think, if this really takes off – and it probably will, are farmers going to be completely out of their jobs? I mean, it's going to start with meat, but then this eventually going to become milk because we're taking milk away from the cow babies and make cheese, so there's going to be no such thing as farmer in the future, right? 

MP: Wrong. There may not be as many cattle farmers or dairy farmers, but hopefully there are still farmers who make all the ingredients to grow our meat. The ingredients come from peas, from corn, from wheat, from soybeans, and they still need to be grown. Farmers are entrepreneurs. What they do in essence is extract value from their land. My neighbour used to be a pig farmer, he no longer could make money with pigs, and he switched to potatoes. So he now uses his land to grow potatoes and he loves his potatoes even better than his pigs because they bring money to the table. 

SS: And you don't have to kill anyone. 

MP: And you don’t have to kill it, and it's not as smelly and it has all sorts of advantages. So you know, I was recently addressing 400 pig farmers in Minnesota in the winter. And they were all looking at pictures of those bioreactors in a nicely heated room and they were thinking of the other day when they were shovelling manure at minus 20 degrees. You know, which labour is nicer? 

SS: Yeah, I agree. Alright, professor. Thanks a lot for this insight and good luck with everything you're doing. 

MP: Thank you. 

SS: Hopefully we'll meet sooner rather than later so I can taste that hamburger ‘cause you’re not letting me taste it. I know it’s here in the lab but you’re not letting me taste it. 

MP: No, unfortunately not.

SS: Ok, thanks.