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A 2,500$ steak

It is a real fried chicken, but it does not come from a fowl. The meat has been grown artificially starting from a few chicken cells, multiplied in a lab. Image credit: Memphis Meats

It is now a few years that some start ups are busy trying to find a way to attack what is a 200B$ market: the production of meat, a business that has gotten more and more like a factory than cattle and fowl breeding. It is a business that is using huge amount of fodder and grain, that is of arable land that could have been used to grow vegetables and wheat for humans, that is producing huge amount of CO2 (methane, actually). Brazil cattle are responsible for 21% of total greenhouse gas emission in Brazil versus 20% created by transportation (in other Countries the ratio is quite different, in the US cattle contribute just 2% of the total emission, clearly US have many more factories and vehicles…). Clearly Brazil have a peculiar situation, being a world meat producer; nevertheless it is a fact that cattle generate significant greenhouse gas emission.

Companies like Memphis Meats have been very successful in finding ways to increase production and decrease cost. In 2008 producing 1 kg of “beef” required 1 million $, in 2016 the cost was “only” 40,000$ and today it is around 2,500$. That is an amazing decrease in price (by coincidence the decrease in price between 2008 and 2016 was exactly in line with the Moore’s law -that has nothing to do with cattle and fowl!-). A 16 times decrease in price in two years (2016-2018) is just amazing. If this decrease in price could continue for another three years, by 2021 one kg of artificial beef would cost some 20$, i.e. it would compare to the “real” one. Already today the marginal cost of a hamburger is slightly less than 10$ (way higher than a usual hamburger but almost affordable)

To keep the price decreasing a few start ups are now considering using CRISPR, the technology that let bio-engineers modify cells at will. The idea is to modify the cells “borrowed” from a cow or a fowl making them easier to multiply to lower the cost. More than that. According to researchers modifying those cells may lead to tastier meat, and healthier as well (few cholesterol…). Those steaks will not just be artificial, they will also be GMO (genetically modified).

Should there be a concern. All of us resist changes, we like to play safe, and I guess it is correct to be safe than sorry. However, we should also be aware that ALL our food is GMO, it was genetically modified by our ancestors long long time ago when they managed (without even realising it) to steer natural selection of rice, wheat, barley, sorghum in the direction of species with higher yield. Same goes for cattle and fowl… it just happened in the last 200 years. CRISPR make it happen in a few hours, but the result is the same. Clearly, it took our ancestors thousands of blind attempts to modify crops in a useful way, most of those attempts failed (and may be some led to unpleasant results). With CRISPR, today, the problem is similar: it got easy to modify a cell but it is not easy to understand all the implications, and this is why there is so much resistance to this method.

In the coming years Artificial Intelligence promises to help us understand the relation between the genotype and the phenotype, i.e. between genetic modification and its result. This would be like finding the holy grail, the key to steer evolution in a desired direction.

Memphis Meats and the other companies working on artificial meat have set 2021 as target for bringing artificial meat to the mass market and some intends to bring this meat to high scale restaurant later this year. The use of CRISPR may be the enabler to reach that goal.

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