Lack of basic research hiding behind 'clean meat' hype

Despite tens of millions of dollars pouring into new technologies, a 'clean' burger remains elusive.

  • Tens of millions of dollars are funding projects to create a consumer-ready lab-grown burger.
  • Despite the hype, experts warn that a lot more research needs to be conducted.
  • Mainstream adoption of plant-based foods, however, is making lab-grown meat a welcome possibility.

Few people disagree that a better solution to factory farming needs to be implemented. Yet since the stark realities of living conditions on such farms are hidden, most people go about their lives without thinking too much about the meat they're eating. Verbiage scrawled on packaging is not much help; terms like "free range" and "all natural" are effectively meaningless. Consumers deserve better, for health and ethical reasons, but it's hard to define "better than what" when "what" is poorly understood.

Lab-grown meat sets off alarm bells in skeptics, yet as Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat, told me last year, an educational process is needed. Combine ethical decisions with biological integrity and lab-grown meat could be a clear winner. Omnivores get tasty protein while vegetarians and vegans can indulge without guilt.

There is certainly a desire for it. Mosa Meat, which has stated its products will be made available in restaurants by 2021, raised nearly $9m for its efforts; plant-based producer, Beyond Meat, has amassed $72m in investment. The Good Food Institute recently funded 14 projects with $3m in grants to companies developing lab-grown meat and plant-based protein. Another research organization, New Harvest, has invested nearly $1m to fund projects over the last decade.

Beyond animal cruelty, the resources needed for producing meat is environmentally taxing. Methane production and water usage are both staggering. The pluripotent stem cells that serve as the basis of laboratory protein could be a silver bullet addressing many problems simultaneously.

But is the hype blinding us to the science? A new article in Nature states we might be.

Tasting the World’s First Test-Tube Steak

According to the article, some projects are falling by the wayside as well. While the Dutch government agreed to contribute $2.3m for research, legislators ended up focusing their efforts on plant-based proteins. This is unfortunate, given the additives used in many such products.

For example, take the popular Beyond Meat burger. While the three main ingredients (besides water, which is the top ingredient) are canola and coconut oils and pea protein isolate, what follows is a list of preservatives necessary for binding, appearance, and taste. These include methylcellulose, a laxative used as an emulsifier; maltodextrin, which is problematic for diabetics; gum arabic, which, in high doses, has been linked to "harmless flatulence." Perhaps most troublesome is "natural flavor," which essentially means, "whatever we want and we won't tell you."

Granted, at less than 2 percent, none of the added ingredients are likely to harm you, but for a company advertising itself as a "revolutionary" product that "looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef," we have to question what is being used to mimic that effect. There are other companies producing alternatives sans preservatives—Sunshine Burgers, for one, makes delicious veggie burgers—so settling on overly processed foods seems a poor choice.

For the moment, lab-grown meat remains in the minor leagues. Like Beef 1.0, when produced this new form of meat will not need additives for consumption. Yet cost is still too prohibitive. As the Nature article cites, a 140-gram burger costs roughly 500 Euros while a thin slice of steak costs roughly $50. Few people will pay premium prices at a sustainable rate; perhaps novelty satisfies a curious itch, but that's where we're currently at. Until the prices are comparable to what we currently consume scalability is impossible.

Meatless 'Impossible Sliders' sit on a table at a White Castle restaurant, April 12, 2018 in the Queens borough of New York City. The meatless burgers, which sell for $1.99, are about twice the size of White Castle's regular sliders. The patties, made primarily of wheat protein and potato, are the first plant-based burgers sold in an American quick-serve restaurant. (Photo illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Another hurdle in spreading the gospel of lab-grown meat is tradition. Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, Ryan Quarles, recently commented that while the state supports new technologies, he wants to make sure no one is "fooled" by marketing campaigns. According to him, Kentucky citizens prefer meat "that comes from four hooves." While this displays an ignorance of how cells are cultured and grown, the barrier to entry for many omnivores is high. Vegetarians and vegans will likely be the initial target market for widespread adoption of such products.

Still, we need alternatives. Right now, 30 percent of calories consumed by humans around the world comes from meat products. In the past half-century, we've nearly doubled our meat consumption as a species. In a growing population that's a lot of carnage; estimates range from 56b animals to many times more that killed just to satisfy our cravings.

Becoming a lab-grown meat-eating species will likely only occur out of necessity, which, mind you, is a possibility. That said, an industry is waiting. As SuperMeat chief executive, Ido Savir, states in the Nature article, "a new field of science is here." It's an exciting one, but a lot more research and testing remain before a consumer-ready product arrives. We can hope for 2021, but we have to be ready to accept reality over hype should it not pan out that way.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.