Growing insect meat in the lab requires much less water and space than raising cattle.
Here’s a conundrum. Animal meat production, especially that of beef, is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices. Yet billions of people love meat and want it in their diets.
What to do?
One solution proposed involves growing meat like beef in the laboratory. Yet doing that on a large enough scale remains economically unfeasible and could also leave a large carbon footprint. Another solution proposed is farming insects that are rich in proteins and other nutrients for human consumption so it can take the place of beef and other animal proteins.
Now a team of scientists at Tufts University in the United States proposes combining the two approaches into one: growing insect meat in the laboratory for mass consumption.
The researchers say that lab-growing insect meat could be a fine green way of producing high volumes of nutritious protein. It would be possible to modify it genetically to improve its taste and nutritional value.
Doing this, they say, would be much preferable to continuing to raise livestock even if it’s genetically modified to be more environmentally sustainable. Cattle can be made to produce less methane, a pernicious greenhouse gas, through some genetic tweaking. Yet cows will still need plenty of land and water, which will drive deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution.
Farming insects, however, requires much less water and land area, even as twice as much of a cricket can be eaten than of a cow. Growing insect meat in the lab would require even less water and space.
“Compared to cultured mammalian, avian and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen and osmolarity conditions,” explains Natalie Rubio, a PhD fellow at Tufts who was the lead author of a paper on the proposed solution.
“Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacture of insecticides, drugs and vaccines,” she adds.
A method for growing insect meat in the lab could rely on optogenetics. “In most mammalian muscle cell culture systems, the cells have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface, which is complex to scale up for mass food production,” Rubio says. “Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation.”
So far so good. There is one important question that still needs answering, though. Or make that two. How will it taste? And will people take to consuming lab-grown insect meat in large enough quantities so we can stop raising billions of heads of cattle?
A trick could involve making lab-grown insect meat taste like shrimp or crab, which millions upon millions of people already love. “Advances in insect cell culture and tissue engineering can potentially be translated to lobster, crab and shrimp, due to the evolutionary proximity of insects and crustaceans,” Rubio says.