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A Future With In Vitro Meat Is Closer Than You Think

10/02/2014 12:32 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

The design fiction and essay that follow are excerpted and adapted from our contribution to The In Vitro Meat Cookbook, an exploration of the new "food cultures" lab-grown meat might create. The In Vitro Meat Cookbook speculates on the possibilities of lab-grown meat, considering implications for design, engineering, ethics, and society.

Design Fiction: "Counter Culture" Restaurant Review

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Counter Culture, London's latest in vitro micro-carnery proves it's the real thing. The restored 1970s-era English brewpub boasts an expansive bar of reclaimed mahogany and booths upholstered with magnificent in vitro leather. Steaks are grown to precision inside giant steel vats, decorated (functionally) with illuminated green algae tanks. A disorienting mingling of global spices flavor varieties of exotic and heritage meats like boar and Berkshire, all of which are cultured on site. The large charcuterie board, consisting of mushroom-media duck foie gras, coriander mortadella and crispy lobes of sweetbread pairs perfectly with a shortlist of probiotic cocktails (try the rum and kombucha)...

Given predictable increases in population and demand, for meat production to take place responsibly in the future, we will have to significantly diversify our eating habits, and with them, our production habits. In vitro meat is one alternative. We don't know enough about it yet. But we know we can make it. It is possible. And we are responsible for exploring what it will mean not only for our health and environment, but also for our culture, and our sense of humanity. At the very least it's the catalyst for a larger discussion on viable, sustainable, and delicious protein alternatives. It could also transform food production as we know it. So, how should we feel about interacting with lab-grown meat? Here, we explore one possible food future.

A few things are required for making meat in vitro: a cell line, a media to feed the cells, a bioreactor where cell growth can take place, and a structure upon which the cells can attach and grow. Each of these elements allows or limitless variations of technique and process. The room for deviation bridges science with craft, enabling in vitro meat makers to create unique products with unique characteristics and features. At the fictional in vitro meat restaurant Counter Culture that begins this essay, the boar meat could be made with adult stem cells collected from wild boar, cultured in an algae media. Grown in a rotating wall bioreactor on a tubular scaffold, the cell stretches to produce a lean, grained meat. The mushroom media duck foie gras could be made from a co-culture of duck fat and liver cells in a mushroom-based media, 3D printed into a bioabsorbable scaffold to produce a fatty, smooth, and cruelty-free foie gras. The flexibility of in vitro meat production can change and diversify the ways people consume and interact with their food.

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The science and art of culturing cells to produce meat has been called "carniculture". Like a bakery where bread is made, a winery where wine is made and a brewery where beer is made, the "carnery" is where in vitro meat is made. Carniculture might be dressed with similar connotations and aesthetics to the craft brew and farm-to-table movements.

We have to ask not only how in vitro meat products nourish our bodies, but how the process of making them nourishes human culture and fits in with our sense of a modern humanity. How, going forward, can the manufacturer of in vitro meat achieve the symbolic status of the farmer, the baker, and the small batch brewer? How can the carnery, like the bakery, the winery, or the brewery, become an impetus for human culture? Though it uses mammalian cell cultures rather than yeast cultures, a carnery has the potential to look very similar to these facilities - beer breweries in particular.

At the carnery of the future, large stainless steel tanks house the biological processes that are transforming organic ingredients into food products. Conditions like temperature and pressure are controlled and manipulated. Inputs and outputs are carefully measured. The work environment is clean and safe. But it doesn't feel like sterile science. It feels crafted, artisanal - because it is.

As with beer, the basic production scheme for producing in vitro meat can be modified and adapted in endless ways to make products that vary in appearance, aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. This makes for an industry comprised of many diverse products and players, and production on many different scales. A brewery can be massive with several stories-tall bioreactors, located near city limits, or it can be smaller and situated in urban areas. A brewpub restaurant may choose to brew seasonal offerings in-house, while a DIY enthusiast may wish to try his or her hand at making the ultimate personalized brew with a home brewing operation.

Imagine that within the stainless steel tanks at a brewery, microbrewery, brewpub or basement, meat rather than beer, is being brewed.

Low cost, mass produced meat is cultured in massive carneries in rural areas. Because the risk of bacterial contamination and viral epidemics is far decreased without the use of animals, the meat production business is no longer at risk of recalls, workers are no longer at risk of health issues, and the local rural environment is no longer at risk of water and air pollution.

Mid-range in vitro meat is made in local carneries in urban areas. These carneries host school and travel tours, educating the public on the art and science of carniculture. Because growing meat in vitro does not require the large tracts of land that factory farms require, this carnery is located in a skyscraper that once contained office space. Algae tanks surround the outer surface of the tower, reaping the unshaded sun available several stories up from ground level.

High priced meats are "micro-cultured" in trendy neighborhoods at boutique carnery pubs like the fictional Counter Culture described at the beginning of this essay. These small batch facilities create various seasonal offerings, depending on which media ingredients are available and which cell cultures and nutrient profiles are in vogue. Forward thinking restaurants offer signature meats cultured in house, paired with a house wine. Some chefs focus on nutrition profiles, some focus on traditional "heritage breed" lines and others focus on biomolecular gastronomy. They test the limits of carniculture by culturing rare or extinct species, co-culturing multiple cell types or developing unique never-before-seen cell lines.

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Communities of home carniculturists, who began as foodies and DIYbio enthusiasts, swap techniques and recipes at cultured meat cook-offs, fairs, and night markets. Carniculture bloggers post photography, data, and other media documenting their materials, methods and meals online. The home carnery movement spawns carniculture specialty shops, cell culture babysitting services, protocol-swapping websites, cell banks and special interest magazines. Hobbyists seeking to turn their passion into a profession have a variety of certification and apprenticeship programs to choose from to help them join a major carnery or start one of their own.

In contrast to industrial farming, meat production methods go from secretive to celebrated. Meat production facilities go from vast to vertical. The meat production industry moves from the hands of few to the hands of many. And people grow more authentically connected to the origins and creation stories of what they eat.

Co-authored with Isha Datar, Executive Director of New Harvest. Illustrations by Silvia Celiberti.

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