Synthetic Meat

In Vitro Meat (IVM) is an approach to growing meat outside of an animal by drawing upon tissue engineering and stem cell science. Muscle cells are cultured in controlled conditions to encourage cell division and proliferation to produce more muscle. These types of technique are common in biomedicine, but become a radically novel approach when applied to food. The technology has been aligned with addressing a variety of societal grand challenges, including environmental issues (through lowering green house gas, emissions and water, land and energy use), health issues (through removing antibiotics and engineering nutrition), ethical issues (through lessening the number of animals killed in meat production) as well as providing new economic opportunities. However the technology remains early stage, and the deliverability of these goals remains indeterminate.

IVM became most visible in August 2013 when Prof Mark Post and his team from Maastricht University staged an event in which a cultured burger was cooked and tasted. This press conference was the culmination of a two year project sponsored by Google co-founder Sergi Brinn to produce a product sufficiently tangible to convince as many as possible that the technology is worth investing in. The event created a significant media interest and Mark Post, and the leading American laboratory Modern Meadow, have continued to secure funding. Other, smaller, laboratories also exist in Canada, Sweden, the UK and Israel.

While the field is still early stage it is positive that forms of technology assessment are already in place. They start from a broad range of perspectives, including ethical, sociological, environmental and artistic. A first tentative conclusion of our review of the state of the art of assessing the societal impacts of in vitro meat was that the different fields of science, ethics, art and environmental analysis were already are forming a connectivity. Researchers from the various fields as well as artists refer to each other in their texts, and the many arguments are either similar or appear commensurable. Subsequently a certain integration of the assessments, and integration between assessments and the research and innovation context, was already in place.

The work of EPINET was to further draw these forms together in a more explicit and robust manner. A literature review, scoping meetings, and joint writing projects have progressed this aim and developed a clear focus for technology assessment of an early stage technology of this type. EPINET focused upon the integration between policy on one hand and innovation-and-assessment on the other. We believe that the policy issue “Should IVM research be funded?” is the one that (a) appears as the more important one for the actors in the context of innovation and (b) is the one for which there is a disconnect and a potential for tighter integration. Importantly this question should not be decoupled from the question of the shaping/reshaping of the technology. If we are to discuss if IVM should be funded, we should simultaneously discuss what it is that is going to be funded or not. To achieve a balanced perspective on this, we – the EPINET Consortium – have needed to ask this question very broadly.

Assessment methodologies involved: multi-scale integrated assessment, ethics, media analysis, socio-technical evaluation.

  • Stephens, N. (2013) Growing meat in laboratories: The promise, ontology and ethical boundary-work of using muscle cells to make food. Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science and Technology. Special issue on ‘Animal Biotechnology as a Liberatory Imaginary’, Stephens, N & Twine, R (eds) 21(2) p159-83.
  • Stephens, N. & Ruivenkamp, M. (under review) Show us the Meat: Promise and Ontological Ambiguity in Images of In Vitro Meat. Science as Culture
  • O’Riordan, K. Fotopoulou, A. & Stephens, N. (under review) The first bite: imaginaries of food, publics and the laboratory grown burger. Public Understanding of Science

  • Talks:

  • Stephens, N. (2015) “Understanding In Vitro Meat”. Food Ethics Council Business Forum. London, 27th January
  • Stephens, N. (2014) “In Vitro Meat: a sociological perspective”. The Ethics of In-Vitro Flesh and Enhanced Animals. Rothbury 18-19th September
  • Stephens, N. (2014) “Cultured blood and cultured meat: similarities and differences”. Industrially Generated Red Blood Cells for Transfusion meeting. Edinburgh 17th September
  • Stephens, N. (2012) “Challenges and opportunities in-vitro meat poses for scientists, regulators and potential consumers”. BBSRC Policy, media and public engagement Global Food Security event. London Science Museum, 22nd November
  • Stephens, N. O'Riordan, K. & Fotopoulou, A (2013) “The First Bite: Imaginaries of Food, Publics and the Laboratory Grown Burger”. Society for the Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting. San Diego, 9-12th October
  • Stephens, N. (2012) “Growing meat from stem cells as ‘normal science’: managing the marginal and mainstream”. Society for the Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting. Copenhagen, 17-20th October
  • Stephens, N. (2012) “Growing meat from stem cells as a radical response to climate change, public health and inequality”. British Sociological Association Food Studies group conference. British Library London, 2-3rd July
  • Stephens, N. (2012) “Growing meat in laboratories (not farms): The social construction of stem cell technology as a radical form of environmentally sound agriculture”. Joint 2012 Annual Meetings & Conference of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS), Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), & Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN): Global Gateways and Local Connections: Cities, Agriculture, and the Future of Food Systems. New York, 20-24 June
  • Stephens, N. (2012) “Social Issues and Cultured Meat”. Tissue Engineering Muscle: in vitro models and making meat. Cardiff, 13th June