- Our culinary future is looking like it might as well have been designed by Hannibal Lecter.
Meat has become a bit of a controversial food in the past couple of decades, at least in some circles. Packed as it is with protein, there are some actual concerns surrounding our hunger for flesh.
Without even mentioning any ethical and animal welfare issues, meat production presents some serious issues. Producing the amounts of meat that we eat has a significant impact on the climate, for one thing.
Living standards around the world are also rising, and with that usually comes an increase in meat consumption. Experts say that we might be facing a tipping point in the planet’s capacity to produce enough food.
Wouldn’t it then be great if we could grow our meat in a lab with little resources? Vat-grown meat is one serious suggestion for feeding the world in the future, and the technology to do so has advanced in strides.
Most of the methods to produce artificial meat concentrate on using animal cells. But now, one group of American scientists has taken the concept to a rather macabre direction.
Introducing, the Ouroboros Steak. The saying goes that you are what you eat, and in this case that is literally true.
That’s because the meat in question is grown from human cells. So how about a nice roasted piece of Edward, or maybe a medium-rare fillet of Katie?
The Devil in the Technicalities
The Ouroboros Steak was recently nominated for the Beazly Design of the Year award by the Design Museum in London. But what is this whole thing actually all about?
Named after the mythical snake figure that eternally swallows its own tail, is a DIY meal kits that allows diners to grow their own meat. As the catalyst for the process, you can use your own cells.
The creators told Dezeen Magazine that eating a stake made out of yourself is “technically” not cannibalism.
We don’t know about you, but we don’t necessarily like that “technically” part.
The vision of the team behind the Ouroboros Steak is that consumers would use a cotton swab to harvest some stray cells from the inside of their cheeks. These cells would be deposited into a pre-grown “scaffolding” made out of fungal mycelium.
Store the growing dish in a warm place for three months, feed it with human growth serum, and voila! A delicious, meaty human steak is ready for cooking.
Industrial designer Grace Knight, who worked on the Ouroboros project, told Dezeen that the growth material for the steak wouldn’t necessarily have to come from the diners. Instead, it could be substituted with medical waste – such as expired blood.
“Expired human blood is a waste material in the medical system and is cheaper and more sustainable than fetal bovine serum, but culturally less-accepted,” said Knight.
“People think that eating oneself is cannibalism, which technically this is not,” she added.
Ugh, there’s that word again. “Technically.”
Part of a Bigger Problem
But in all seriousness, the scientists aren’t pushing eating human-sourced meat all that seriously. Sure, the process is valid, but they actually wanted to raise questions about the sustainability of our meat-heavy diets.
“Our design is scientifically and economically feasible but also ironic in many ways,” said designer and researcher Orkan Telhan, also part of the Ouroboros team.
“We are not promoting ‘eating ourselves’ as a realistic solution that will fix humans’ protein needs. We rather ask a question: what would be the sacrifices we need to make to be able to keep consuming meat at the pace that we are?”
The team wants to draw attention to the rising lab-grown meat industry. While growing artificial meat is supposedly cruelty-free, it is actually not completely true.
More specifically, producers of lab-grown meat use the aforementioned fetal bovine serum (FBS) as a growth supplement in the growing process. FBS ranges in price from $400 to $900 per liter, and is harvested from the blood of cow fetuses after their mothers are slaughtered.
So, a cow – or two, actually – still have to die to make lab-grown meat.
“Although some lab-grown meat companies are claiming to have solved this problem, to our knowledge no independent, peer-reviewed, scientific studies have validated these claims,” said Ouroboros team scientist Andrew Pelling.
“As the lab-grown meat industry is developing rapidly, it is important to develop designs that expose some of its underlying constraints in order to see beyond the hype.”
Add in the high cost of FBS, and a laboratory steak starts looking less attractive.
“In the future, who will be able to afford animal meat and who may have no other option than culturing meat from themselves?” asked Telhan.
Big Money in Sight
Pelling says the lab-grown meat industry is growing quickly, and that it surely is. According to Market Data Forecast, the cultured meat market was worth $206 million in 2020.
By 2025, the company projects that market to grow to a whopping $572 million. That’s some serious growth.
The first lab-grown steaks have already been produced, served, and eaten. The products are marketed as more sustainable both environmentally and ethically, but in light of the Ouroboros team’s claims, those marketing spiels seem a bit dubious.
Still, there are benefits to laboratory meat. Israel-baled Aleph Farms, which produced the first lab-grown beef steak, said the artificial steak is much cheaper than the “real” thing.
Lab-grown meat doesn’t necessarily have to come from animals, though. Spanish Novameat, for example, produced 3D-printed steaks made from vegetable proteins.
In light of the possible environmental and cost benefits, vat-grown meat might be the future. Let’s just hope we don’t actually have to resort to devouring our own flesh.