Biotech Factories to Farm Fake Meat
For years, opponents have argued that genetically engineered plants wreak havoc with human health and nature, and accuse plant biotech companies, such as Monsanto, of putting profits before people. On the other hand, agricultural biotech proponents argue that engineered crops enable farmers to grow at a time of global food shortages, insidious pests, weeds and extreme weather. "It's a complicated issue," says James E. McWilliams, author of American Pests and professor of history at Texas State University. Plant virologist Roger N. Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Center in St. Louis, Missouri, thinks that environmentalists and biotech experts can emerge from the cloud of controversy, find common ground, and move toward green goals together. So, whether transgenic crops make you think "yum-yum" or "no ma'am," McWilliams and Beachy share what's cooking:
1. Biofortified Soya Beans
What advantage did these few plants gain by evolving the ability to catch animals instead of just capturing the sun's energy? The elaborate structures necessary for killing bugs -- pools of nectar, bright colors, unusual shapes and digestive enzymes -- must be costly for the plant to make. Not so, says a new study, published in the American Journal of Botany, that examined Asian pitcher plants (pictured here), Venus flytraps, sundews and others.
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images
2. Edible Cotton Seeds
By nature, cotton seeds are inedible because they contain gossypol, a component that keeps bugs away. In 2006, Texas A&M University and Cotton Inc. collaborated on research to produce genetically engineered seeds without the inedible part while keeping it in the plant for protection. The researchers made nutty-tasting meal from the seeds that could be used for flour, but the discovery has many regulatory and logistic hurdles to clear before it could be a reality in cotton-growing areas.
Food or energy? With gas prices soaring, biofuel advocates find themselves going toe-to-toe with farmers. Jatropha is an inedible plant whose seeds produce a liquid like palm oil that could be used for biofuel. Earlier this year the plant caused political tension in India, where tribal communities accused the government of destroying their native crops to plant jatropha for fuel needs. Plant breeding and genetic engineering will result in high-yielding jatropha that will increase overall production and potentially reduce the hectares needed; Roger Beachy says jatropha and other oil-producing, non-food plants also have the potential to produce bioplastics that can degrade in landfills.
4. Golden Rice
More than 120 million children globally don't get enough vitamin A and as a result are at risk for blindness. Back in the 1990s, a scientific team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology by Ingo Potrykis and collaborators at Syngenta Company discovered that adding several key genes from flowering plants to rice could dramatically increase the amount of beta carotene, a molecular that human beings can convert to Vitamin A. Even though the research ran into intellectual property rights problems, a public-private partnership between the inventors and agrichemical company Syngenta allowed the research to continue. Golden rice was successfully field-tested in Louisiana four years ago, but the inventors blame bureaucratic measures for slowing its adoption abroad.
International Rice Research Institute
5. Flood-Resistant Rice
Husband and wife team Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak bridge the biotech-environmental divide in their book Tomorrow's Table, arguing that genetic-engineering and organic farming can be blended. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at University of California-Davis, has been working with David Mackill of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines on genetically-modified rice that can withstand flooding. If field trials are successful, the rice could be available as early as next year.
6. Sugar Beets
For something that's so sweet, the debate over this crop has been rather bitter. Last year the New York Times chronicled sugar beet farmers' woes as they battled weeds to harvest the beets that provide around half the nation's sugar. They eagerly awaited Monsanto's Roundup Ready beets to produce higher yields and pay less for herbicide and workers to weed the fields. Environmentalists, meanwhile, raised alarm over the problem of weeds that are resistant to Roundup herbicide, cross-pollination with organic crops, and a group of advocates sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the matter. The beets became available to farmers earlier this year.
Admittedly, this isn't a crop, but it will likely be cultivated like one. The London Times recently reported that a biotechnology company in San Francisco called LS9 had genetically modified industrial yeast to munch on plant sugars and excrete crude oil. No, really. The company plans to feed the yeast agricultural waste, although they haven't quite scaled up the operation up beyond the beaker level. And there's no word yet on whether they will be able to engineer some bugs to eat up all the carbon dioxide from combustion.
This starchy, potato-like root is an essential plant for millions of people around the world, especially in Africa. This staple lacks a range of vitamins that are crucial to development and its cultivation can be adversely affected by drought. BioCassava Plus is a group of scientists led by Ohio State University Professor Richard Sayre and financed with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Currently they're working on a virus-resistant cassava that contains a day's worth of vitamins, proteins, and minerals. They plan to field test it in two African countries within the next two years.
Plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves has been involved in papaya research for 30 years. It's not a stretch to say that papayas might have been wiped out entirely had it not been for his work. A virus was rapidly eating up the orange-yellow tropical fruit when Gonsalves, then at Cornell University, and fellow researchers engineered the SunUp papaya strain. Earlier this year, the University of Hawaii-Menoa led a group of 85 scientists to decode the SunUp papaya's genome -- the first fruit species sequenced. They'd like to use that information to strengthen the fruit's resistance to pests so farmers can cut back on the chemicals.
10. Castor Beans
"Plants make so many things," Roger Beachy says. He points to the castor plant, whose beans make versatile oil that can be used in a wide range of products, from jet engine lubricant to shampoo. The castor bean also contains a deadly toxin called ricin that has no antidote, which explains why the crop isn't very popular to grow. Two researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture became the first in the world to genetically engineer castor plants, blocking ricin production as well as intense allergens that the plants make. In addition, the USDA researchers would like to genetically engineer the plant to produce castor oil epoxy, which could replace toxic solvents in paints.
The movement to sell locally sourced, artisanal food and drink has picked up steam in recent years as many consumers demand better quality products with a smaller environmental footprint and traceable pedigree. But some Dutch researchers are taking this idea a step further, proposing the creation of village-level “meat factories” that would produce unique flavors of artificial beef, pork or chicken, all from a biotech reactor.
The study builds upon work done last year, the so-called “test-tube hamburger” that was created by researchers at the University of Maastrict in the Netherlands and unveiled at a tasting in London.
This latest study by a pair of researchers at Wagenigen University proposes a device that can create meat cells in a metal container – enough to feed a small amount of “cultured beef” each month to a village of 2,650 people.
“We thought it was interesting and most promising to do cultured meat on a small scale,” said Cor van der Weele, professor of philosophy who wrote the paper with biotechnology professor Johannes Tamper in the journal Trends in Biotechnology. “A small scale is also good from a biotechnology point of view.”
Van der Weele said she was inspired to come up with this alternative to meat because of her concerns over animal welfare, as well as the environmental impact of land used to grow beef cattle.
“Raising small numbers of animals in a village is fine,” Van der Weele said. “But the way animals are raised now is not in small amounts but in large scale and factory farms.”
The process extracts stem cells from muscle tissue of cows, pigs or chickens, and culturing them in a 20 meter-squared bioreactor. The number of cells would grow exponentially as long as the liquid culture medium can be kept sterile, according to the study. The reactor would produce 22 pounds of meat per person per year, enough to reduce, but not eliminate, demand for other sources of animal protein.
Villages could tweak the meat to capture their own local flavors, or “terroir,” according to Van der Weele.
The Dutch researchers admit the biggest obstacle is cost. Last year’s in vitro burger cost $325,000 and any village-level bioreactor would need an expensive growth medium, pushing the cost to about $240 per pound of meat.
“From a technological perspective, ‘village-scale’ production is also a promising option,” the authors wrote. “From an economic point of view, however, competition with ‘normal’ meat is a big challenge; production cost emerges as the real problem. For cultured meat to become competitive, the price of conventional meat must increase greatly.”
Warren Ruder, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, agreed that the technology is already there to build bio-beef, it just cost a lot. “The type of culture they are describing is relatively simple,” Ruder said. “We’ve been making artificial muscle in the laboratory for a decade.”
Cost isn’t the only issue. Some critics wonder if people would really eat it. Last year’s burger was flavored with salt, egg powder, breadcrumbs, with beet juice and saffron for color.
“My gut reaction is lot of folks would have the same general feeling that I do,” said Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattleman’s Beef Council in Washington, DC. “I don’t think it’s overly palatable.”