By Dr. Wazir Kudrath
Should we roll out the red carpet? The FDA has just approved lab-grown meat as consumer safe and marketable! This approval, surprisingly, was not met with fanfare and trumpets blowing but has quietly taken place on the shelf of normalcy in our life. This article explores this milestone or crossroads of human society and food supply. There is no doubt that they are various facets to this scientific frontier. So, grab a drink that may also be scientifically engineered and learn about our possible future meal.
The science of lab-grown meat
Simple schematic of the process of lab cultivated “meat”. (figure1)
A sample of cells from a living animal or an egg for growing chicken meat is harvested and placed in a growth medium. These cells are mostly stem cells or cells from muscle or connective tissues. The cells are obtained by biopsy, just as would be done if a doctor wants to see if the node in a lung or the mass in any part of the body is made up of cancerous cells. A fine needle is introduced, and a sample of cells is aspirated and examined in the laboratory. However, now, in the case of lab-grown meat, the aspirated cells are placed in a bioreactor with incubating medium that provides nutrients such as amino acids and other growth-dependent factors, mimicking the body’s natural internal environment. This growing mass is then shaped by a process called scaffolding which is like the mesh that supports the growing proteinaceous mass. This scaffolding is almost the same technique that medical sciences use to grow organs for transplants, for example, a new heart or ear.
Is it real meat?
Example of first packaged lab cultivated “meat” (figure 2)
The scientific answer is yes. Lab-grown meat has the same protein content and molecular structure as traditional animal meat. Scientists say the only difference is how it gets to our plate: lab-grown meat comes from harvested cells from a living animal, while conventional meat comes from animals raised and killed for human consumption. (The human league magazine). The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that Lab-grown meat is safe for human consumption and has given the go-ahead to numerous companies advancing this technique. Now, this product is already starting to find a place on our grocery shelves and in restaurants. “I am thrilled to share that cultivated meat will now be available and stand by its safety and nutrient value, “says the CEO of a company that is pioneering this process and is among the growing number of companies entering the potential market.
According to Vitor Santo, GOOD Meats cell agriculture director: “The biggest challenge right now is definitely building the manufacturing capacity.” UPSIDE Foods COO, Amy Chen, concedes, “Industrial farming has had a head start,” Now that there is USDA and FDA approval, the manufacturing infrastructure can be built to begin production at a level to supply across the US. At the same time, companies in Europe and Israel are not taking a back seat to the cultivating meat industry and have entered into production and supply. A cell-cultivated meat start-up in Israel is now seeking kosher certification for its product.
Arguments for Lab cultivated meat.
The reasons that are propelling this developing industry are multifold and compelling.
1. It is enhancing the food supply and is another weapon in fighting global hunger. The impact of climate change resulting in a massive decline in agriculture and animal husbandry in vast areas, especially in underdeveloped nations, potentially leaves millions at risk of starvation and decimation of entire populations. Cells from a single cow can produce 175 million hamburgers, far more than the 440,000 cows needed using traditional animal farming.
Climate change and loss of animal husbandry (figure 3)
2. It is slaughter-free. Advocates argue that this meat source removes the need to slaughter billions of animals worldwide and the often cruelty associated with killing that takes place. Also, it takes away the risks of contamination and unhealthy practices associated with animal slaughter and storage of meat.
3. It is hormone free. Lab-cultivated meat is done in a clean laboratory and controlled environment. The need and use of artificial growth hormones to promote muscle gain and fast growth does not exist with Lab cultivated meat but is almost necessary for traditional large-scale animal raising. Synthetic estrogen and testosterone are a constant in traditional large-scale animal farming but not needed in Lab cultivated meat. Several studies (JAMA internal medicine July 24th,2006), outside of the meat industry studies, have pointed to a link between these synthetic injections of hormones and steroids and cancer.
4. Insignificant impact on climate. According to the United Nations FAO, animal agriculture generates about 18 percent of global greenhouse gases, making it one of the leading causes of methane gas’s effect on the climate and the ozone layer. In contrast, Lab cultivating meat can reduce the impact of animal farming by up to 96 percent (Oxford University study).
5. Land and resources. Animal farming requires large land areas and water sources, leaving smaller-scale farming at a disadvantage and higher cost. The impact can eradicate access to meat and protein food sources in poorer communities.
6. Water conservation. Lab-cultivated meat does not require vast access to water and the consequent water shortage that can occur. Water conservation has become a critical survival issue in many nations and communities.
Some concerns about Lab cultivated meat.
There is no doubt that emotional, psychological, and ethical concerns will be raised. However, these concerns, like a coin, will have two sides to the argument: more food supply and hunger eradication versus long-term health effects, which can only be known with time (as is often the case ). Social scientists will query the impact of this nontraditional food source on social architecture and human relationships with nature. Proponents of this technology will call on precedent such as man adopting large-scale farming, plant hybridization to ensure faster and better yields, and domestication and cage rearing of animals, which was a radical change in the human search for food: from foraging to settlements. However, the immediate and practical concerns can be:
1. Genetic modification. Is this a variant of genetic engineering? While not all genetic modifications are health risks, can the proponents of this technology guarantee by studies and research that the product is safe in both the short and long term? The approval from USDA and FDA answers this question.
2. Taste. How palatable is this product, and how does it accommodate the various cultural cooking styles: grilling versus currying?
3. Labeling. Will regulations be in place that mandates Lab-grown meat to be labeled as such and thus give consumers the benefit of choice and knowing?
4. Regulations. What regulations will be implemented to ensure content safety, quality control, and post-market monitoring?
The Islamic Perspective on Lab-Cultivated Meat?
Our Muslim natural scientists, health experts, and jurists must convene discussions on this matter and issue guidelines to the Muslim community. This writer poses the following questions and concerns to our experts:
1. As a background, provide an exposition on the principles of the permitted versus the preferred. Also, clarifying the subsets of halal. In seeking the” preferred,” Muslims can often shift the line to include the permitted with the forbidden.
2. Clarifying the principles of zabiyah (slaughter of the animal) in converting the live animal to food and examining if this process establishes its necessity for all “meats” as food. Also, examining the semantics of language and clarifying the meaning of “meat” (Lahm) and if the Lab cultivated product answers to that meaning. Is it a proteinaceous mass or meat, as conventionally understood?
3. Is there a total exclusion of “meat” source other than that from a live animal? If there is no explicit prohibition, does that mean it is allowable?
4. If allowable, then is it classified under permitted or preferred based on other factors such as health impact, culture, emotional reaction (as demonstrated by the Prophet’s dislike for the meat of the lizard, dhab, but allowed it)
Over 50 companies worldwide are engaged in the initial preparation and marketing of the Lab cultivated “meat.” It is a relatively fast-growing industry, primarily as climate change affects the food supply worldwide. The USDA and the FDA’s approval has given these companies the go-ahead to scale production and bring costs down to market tolerance. The Muslim community must not be left behind in this matter but instead, proactively develop a clear position on this soon-to-be significant new source of food. The knowledge and science of technology must be given guidelines, which must take an overall, big-picture view. Allah has made man His vicegerent on earth and has given man the knowledge and responsibility to extract the benefits from His creations within His guidelines.
The question now arises: Is this new technology an answer to the diminishing food supply (nutrient supply) and the rising population of the globe, which is projected to be more than 10 billion by 2050?