Archive for November, 2011

How does the prospect of tucking into tissue-engineered skeletal muscle take you? cows

Hmm, thought not. But if researcher Mark Post has anything to do with it then laboratory-grown meat will be coming to a plate near you.

Post is the Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and is an expert in tissue engineering.

He believes that within our lifetimes we’ll be consuming meat that comes from a petri dish rather than from an animal.

The idea that people will never adopt in-vitro meat, that there is a natural aversion, can be overcome, he believes, by getting good information into the public domain.

It’s why he was at the IQ2 “If” Conference at the Royal Geographical Society last week, explaining that he thinks that lab-grown meat will be part of all our futures.

He starts with the principal that animals are very inefficient at converting vegetable protein to animal protein and that the World Health Organisation expects meat consumption to double by 2050.

Since we’re already using 70% of our arable lands for meat production, we’re heading down an unsustainable track, he argues.

Factor in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and he believes lab meat, which, he says, can be produced using less land, less water and less energy, has real benefits.

Post uses  stem cell muscle from an animal to start the process in the lab: “We can make strips of muscle out of this and it starts to move – we can electrically stimulate it and it starts to move even more vigorously.

“We start with these very simple strips of scaffold and we grow skeletal muscle on those strips so we can get a 3D structure.

“Of course this doesn’t come for free. You need to add sugars and proteins and fatty acids, but the thing is you can play with it and make it much more efficient than a cow or a pig can do.”

Post also sees the potential to tweak the feeding of the cells to create a healthier product but it’s clear he still has a long way to go and the barrier to uptake isn’t just consumer acceptance.

Taste, texture and protein content are just some of the practical issues he has to overcome if the idea is ever to become a reality.


water pouchHow much water do you eat? That was the oddly compelling title of a Ted-style 15-minute talk by Jane Withers at the inaugural IQ2 “If” conference  at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Friday.

The self-styled aquaholic is on a one-woman mission to raise awareness about water consumption and fully expects that in the future there will be a Fairtrade label for it.

The big problem, as she sees it, is that we simply don’t value water – and in her words that has to change.

She cited figures to show that much of the water we “consume” is hidden. In the UK, the average person uses 150 litres a day for domestic purposes. But that rises to more than 4,600 litres a day if you add in the total water footprint.

How does she arrive at that number? By factoring in the water used in the products and services we buy . So, for example, a menu choice of Peking Duck has a hidden footprint of 7,000 litres of water which comes mainly from the feed on which the duck is fattened.

Kenyan green beans which are often found on the shelves of British supermarkets carry more than just an air miles consideration. In Withers’ view we’ve outsourced our water footprint to countries with scarce supplies and she thinks it’s important that we know whose water we’re using and for what.

Inevitably, she believes, we’ll end up paying more for water intensive products.

In an earlier session, the manager of Shell’s global strategy team, Adam Newton, talked about how production of a kilo of beef used more than 15,000 litres of water, and a single cup of coffee 140 litres.

Newton also stated that some areas of the Middle East were using up to 65% of domestic oil production to desalinate water.

Did you know, for instance, that the world’s largest dairy farm is in Saudi Arabia? The kingdom has 29,000-strong herd of cows producing 100,000 gallons of milk per day – and that takes an awful lot of water.

Why should anyone care? Why does all this matter? Because, as Newton pointed out, the equivalent of six new Londons were being created every year and demand for water can only go up.

Withers’ 1% Water blog makes the point that 70% of the Earth’s surface is water but only 3% is freshwater and only 1% is available to us.

Incidentally, the image used to illustrate this post is a pouch by Olivia Decaris a London-based, French designer and illustrator.

It attempts to make the point that if you had to ‘milk’ your tap to get water rather than let it gush freely you might be inclined to use it more sparingly.