Is 3D the future for lab-grown meat?

Could 3D bio-printing offer an alternative route to cultured meat and a path towards more sustainable future?

In a fascinating new development, researchers from Japan’s Osaka University have used stem cells from Wagyu cattle to 3D print a steak.

This exciting move suggests that the isolation of stem cells in this manner could provide scientists with another viable route as they continue to work towards achieving their goal of commercially scalable lab-grown ‘meat’.

However, what’s interesting about this particular approach is that scientists have been able to use bovine satellite cells and adipose-derived stem cells to actually recreate the high content of intramuscular fat that delivers the marbling Wagyu is known for.

Crucially, it’s this characteristic which gives the beef its rich flavour and texture and in the past, this is where many attempts at a more sustainable cell-based future have fallen down.

This is because many of the cultured meat alternatives currently available are off-putting to consumers and consist of poorly organised muscle fibre cells that lack the complex structure of real steak and often end up looking like a rather poor quality mince.

However, using this method scientists were able to fabricate individual fibres such as muscle, fat, and blood vessels through bioprinting and arrange these in 3D following the histological structure, to replicate the composition of Wagyu meat.

But is it realistic to think that this new approach could mark another milestone in the remarkable progress that has been made to towards a world in the not too distant future where our plates our filled with ‘cultured meat’?

With figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) suggesting 45% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food production and processing and that livestock production is responsible for more than for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, both consumers and environmentalists are pressing for long-term solutions.

“Using the histological structure of Wagyu beef as a blueprint, we have developed a 3D-printing method that can produce tailor-made complex structures, like muscle fibers, fat, and blood vessels,” says lead author Dong-Hee Kang.

As co-author Michiya Matsusaki explains, that conjures up other possibilities too.

“By improving this technology, it will be possible to not only reproduce complex meat structures, such as the beautiful sashi of Wagyu beef, but to also make subtle adjustments to the fat and muscle components,” he adds.

The idea of using this method at scale to produce varying types of cultured meat offers up various menu options to consumers in theory. In future, customers could, for instance, potentially be able to order cultured meat with a specific desired amount of fat, based on personal taste and health considerations.

Yet, even if the science maintains its rapid progress, there is evidence that the path to a more sustainable future may still be complicated even if there is a desire to reduce the environmental impact of large-scale intensive farming.

New research from the University of Sydney and Curtin University reveals that despite having a great concern for the environment and animal welfare, 72 percent of Generation Z (18 to 25 year-olds) are not ready to accept cultured meat. This, despite more than 41 percent believing it could become a viable nutritional food source whilst offering the desired improvements in animal welfare through the reduction of animals bred for slaughter.

Interestingly, over 17 percent of respondents rejected all alternatives, such as cultured meat, as they view it as a heavily processed, chemically produced option that also raises environmental questions at scale.

As Dr Diana Bogueva from the University of Sydney's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, explains many are still not ready to accept the idea of cultured meat on our plates and view it with disgust. Even so, she believes that in-vitro meat and other such alternatives are important, as they can help to reduce greenhouse emissions whilst improving long-term animal welfare conditions.

“However, if cultured meat is to replace livestock-based proteins,” she adds, “it will have to emotionally and intellectually appeal to the Gen Z consumers. It may be through its physical appearance, but what seems to be more important is transparency around its environmental and other benefits.”

Yet, even with Covid-19 having highlighted new weaknesses in global food supply chains, there is still some way to go if 35 percent of all meat consumed globally by 2040 will be cultured, as analysts at AT Kearney have suggested.

As Bogueva quite rightly points out, the current generation has vast amounts of information at its fingertips but has concerns about a legacy of exploitative capitalism.

"They have witnessed such behaviour resulting in climate change and are now afraid that a similar scenario may develop in relation to food, particularly as investors are pursuing broader adoption of cultured meat," she adds.

Further reading: Cell-based meat on the table as financial and Covid pressures take their toll