Taking the meat industry to the slaughterhouse

Our current method of producing meat for consumption is unsustainable, but our brightest minds are already inventing alternatives. In the future, meat from an animal may be nothing more than a distant memory

I’m not sure whether it’s the taste or the sight of a burger that’s so appealing; maybe it’s the fulfilment of a raw, carnivorous desire in me or the aesthetic appeal of seeing meat ooze that’s so alluring. I know that what gives meat much of its unique flavour is haem, a compound found in all living cells, including plants. So with that knowledge, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine a future where my favourite burger joint is proud to admit the meat they serve is derived entirely from plants, or where family barbeques are made possible because of meat grown in a lab. But that future seems as far away as humans living on Mars – ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.

Meat eating is so ingrained in many peoples’ diets that it’s hard to even consider alternatives. But we need to. Our current method of producing meat is unsustainable, and most of the environmental crises that blight our planet can be linked back to meat eating. I know this, but luckily for me, as a meat eater, so do some of our most innovative and inventive minds. The meat industry is ripe for disruption, but are we ready to adopt science’s best alternatives?

We cannot continue on this path which puts the environment, public health and food security at risk

The evidence to suggest we have to is very convincing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the meat industry is responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions – which makes it more problematic than transportation. Animals are not just raw materials, they’re living beings, and rearing them for consumption has a massive impact on our environment. Producing 1kg of beef requires 15 times as much land as producing 1kg of cereals, and 70 times as much land as 1kg of vegetables. Making meat also requires supplying animals with vast amounts of food and water: 40% of global grain production is used for animal feed – although in richer countries this increases to around 70% – and water used in livestock production currently accounts for 15% of all irrigated water – this number is expected to increase to 50% by 2025.

Growing animals in the lab

The meat industry is mostly hidden from the public eye; to a large extent we don’t really care where our meat comes from as long as it is readily available and reasonably priced. But the idea of killing billions of animals for their meat might one day seem as crazy as considering the horse as the best mode of transportation – especially since innovators such as biofabrication company Modern Meadow are already proposing a much more humane and evolved method of sourcing meat.

The New York-based company has pioneered using animal cells to grow meat and other products derived from animals, such as leather. This technique has already been used in medicine, where sophisticated body parts have been successfully implanted into patients. Now the company believes this process can be used to drag our environmentally irresponsible, inhumane and inefficient meat industry into the 21st century.

“I’m convinced that in thirty years, when we look back on today and how we slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful and indeed crazy,” says Modern Meadow CEO Andras Forgacs. “Right now we breed and raise highly complex animals only to create products that are made of relatively simple tissues. What if instead of starting with a complex and sentient animal, we started with what the tissues are made of, the very basic unit of life, the cell?”


Image courtesy of Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

The process used by Modern Meadow to culture animal cells takes inspiration from how we currently produce wine, beer or yoghurt, and this method of manufacturing with cell cultures has been used for thousands of years. As Forgacs points out, “a brewery is essentially a bioreactor.”

In order to make the concept of manufacturing cells in a laboratory more palatable to consumers and regulators, Modern Meadow is beginning by engineering leather – the process to make leather is simpler because it mainly uses one cell type. However, the company don’t aim to just reproduce leather; it envisions a future where we improve upon nature and tune leather to make it softer, more durable and more breathable. If this is successful, it may not be long before we see leather being worn by Olympic athletes, Premier League footballers and NBA stars, rather than being the preserve of rockers and motorcycle enthusiasts.

If this kind of transformation is possible then perhaps we will also be able to engineer superior food products. But for now, Forgacs is clear on one thing. “We cannot continue on this path which puts the environment, public health and food security at risk,” he says.

Why wouldn’t you eat a plant-based burger?

If growing meat in a lab is too much like a Frankenstein nightmare for you, then perhaps the idea of creating meat from plants will be less polarising. The likes of Bill Gates, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and Google Ventures believe so. They are all investors in Impossible Foods, a company which uses plants to make meats and dairy products that taste, smell and – in the case of burgers – ooze like the real thing.

Image courtesy of Impossible Foods

Image courtesy of Impossible Foods

For humankind to shift to eating plants, regardless of how similar they are in taste to traditional meats, would clearly take a monumental paradigm shift. To many, meat eating is not just about satisfying the biological urge to avoid hunger. It fulfils our primal hunter-gather urges, and the amount of meat a nation consumes is indicative of its wealth. It’s no surprise that when a country such as China moves its citizens out of poverty, meat consumption rises dramatically. Therefore marketing plant-based meats to carnivores and wealthy nations is never going to be easy – but when has a problem like that ever stopped our tech disruptors?

“Plenty of people, regardless of gender, value their health and the health of our planet. Our experience shows that people are happy to embrace plant-based alternatives as long as they are just as satisfying and delicious as animal-derived foods. Our Impossible burger meets that challenge, so we are confident that it will be a tremendous success,” Impossible Foods told Factor.

“The most important thing for us is to produce foods that satisfy, delight and nourish people as well as being better than those derived from animals. You can’t force people to change their eating habits.  You have to give them a better alternative to what they’re eating – and that’s what we’re doing at Impossible Foods.”

Impossible Foods is the brainchild of Patrick O. Brown, MD, PhD, who arrived at the idea while on sabbatical from his position as a professor. When faced with the question of whether we maintain an unsustainable meat industry at the expense of our ecological future, Brown drew on his training and expertise in biochemistry in a bid to make the largest and most positive impact on the world.  He realised there was a better way to make meat – directly from plants – that would taste better and be better for the environment.

You can’t force people to change their eating habits.  You have to give them a better alternative to what they’re eating

While the US will be the first market Impossible Foods caters for, the company says it has received lots of interest from around the world from people who “would gladly give up animal products if there were a tasty and satisfying plant-based alternative”

Given that the company is targeting the American meat eater it is unsurprising that it is starting with a plant-based burger, which along with cowboys and country music is probably the item most synonymous with American culture. However, Impossible Foods say the methods it’s been developing will enable it to reproduce any of the foods that are currently produced using animals, such as steak, bacon, fish, chicken, milk, and cheese. However, whether anyone will feel the same amount of pride at winning a plant-based steak eating contest is yet to be seen.

Changing how we define meat

If left to its own devices the meat industry will continue to plunder the environment to satisfy our demand for meat. Modern Meadow estimates that as the global population rises – and it is expected that some ten billion of us will be roaming the Earth by 2050 – we will need to increase the number of livestock from the 60 billion we maintain today to 100 billion animals.


Clearly that’s unsustainable, and while our efforts to quell production won’t end all our environmental problems – if Americans start eating less beef it’s still unlikely a corn farmer in Iowa will miraculously begin exporting wheat to Africa – this is enough of problem to demand that we begin considering alternatives right now.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where traditional meat is no longer a staple of our diet, but if we have an alternative that looks, smells and tastes the same as real farmed meat and allows Daisy the cow to live a happy and fulfilling life, why wouldn’t we choose that?

Whether you favour plant-based alternatives or laboratory-cultured animal cells, what we consider to be meat is about to change drastically. The meat industry is ripe for disruption, and that process is already underway.

New research claims a video game can improve doctors’ ability to recognise severe trauma in patients

New research has concluded a specifically-designed video game improves doctors’ ability to recognise when patients need to be transferred to a severe trauma centre.

The research, by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and published today in the BMJ, revealed the game Night Shift was better at preparing doctors to recognise patients who needed higher levels of care than reading traditional educational materials.

This was the case even though doctors who were made to play the game, in which doctors play as a fictitious, young emergency physician treating severe trauma patients, enjoyed it less than those who were asked to read relevant materials.

“Physicians must make decisions quickly and with incomplete information. Each year, 30,000 preventable deaths occur after injury, in part because patients with severe injuries who initially present to non-trauma centres are not promptly transferred to a hospital that can provide appropriate care,” said the game’s creator Deepika Mohan, MD, MPH and assistant professor in Pitt’s departments of Critical Care Medicine and Surgery.

“An hour of playing the video game recalibrated physicians’ brains to such a degree that, six months later, they were still out-performing their peers in recognising severe trauma.”

Night Shift was designed by Mohan to tap into the part of the brain that uses pattern recognition and previous experience to make snap decisions by using subconscious mental shortcuts – a process called heuristics.

Doctors in non-trauma centres typically see only about one severe trauma per 1,000 patients. As a result, their heuristic abilities can become skewed toward obvious injuries such as gunshot wounds, and miss equally severe traumas such as internal injuries from falls.

On average, 70% of severely injured patients who present to non-trauma centres are under-triaged and not transferred to trauma centres as recommended by clinical practice.

“There are many reasons beyond the doctor’s heuristics as to why a severe trauma patient wouldn’t be transferred to a trauma centre, ranging from not having an ambulance available to a lack of proper diagnostic tools,” said Mohan.

“So, it is important to emphasize that recalibrating heuristics won’t completely solve the under-triage problem and that the problem isn’t entirely due to physicians’ diagnostic skills. But it’s heartening to know we’re on track to develop a game that shows promise at improving on current educational training.”

For the study, Mohan recruited 368 physicians from across the US who did not work at hospitals specialising in severe trauma. Half were assigned to play the game and half were asked to spend at least an hour reading the educational materials.

Participants then responded to questionnaires and completed a simulation that tested how often they “under-triaged,” or failed to send severe trauma patients to hospitals with the resources necessary to handle them.

Physicians who played the game under-triaged 53% of the time, compared with 64% for those who read the educational materials.

Six months later, Mohan reassessed the physicians and found that the effect of the game persisted, with those who played the game under-triaging 57% of the time, compared to 74% for those who had read the educational materials.

Multimedia courtesy of Schell Games.

Researchers believe modified CRISPR could be used without editing DNA

Researchers from the US' Salk Institute have used CRISPR as a switch that turns genes on and off and allows harmful mutant genes to be disabled without affecting the structure of their DNA. Until this development gene editing using CRISPR carried the risk of causing unintended effects.

Source: Gizmodo

Nissan to trial robo-taxis in Japan next year

The carmaker Nissan is is partnering with Japanese software company DeNA to test self-driving taxis on Japanese roads from March next year. The free trials will be held over a two-week period in March in Yokohama, and Nissan believes the service could be officially launched in Japan in the early 2020s.

Source: BBC

Apparently, gaming can save your brain

Research participants who played 3D platforming games like the iconic Super Mario 64 had more gray matter in their hippocampus after playing, That part of the brain transforms short-term memories into long-term ones and maintains the spatial memory that helps us navigate the world around us.

Source: Inverse

San Francisco votes to restrict delivery robots

San Francisco officials have voted to restrict where delivery robots can go in the city, amid concerns about the safety of pedestrians, particularly elderly people and children. Start-ups will now have to get permits to use such bots, which will be restricted to less crowded urban areas.

Source: BBC

Steam stops accepting Bitcoin

When Valve first started accepting Bitcoin in April 2016 it was trading around $450 per coin. Today, with Bitcoin surging past $12,000 per coin, Valve has announced that "Steam will no longer support Bitcoin as a payment method on our platform due to high fees and volatility in the value of Bitcoin."

Source: Ars Technica

The maker of Budweiser beer reserves 40 Tesla electric trucks

Budweiser beer maker Anheuser-Busch has reserved 40 Tesla all-electric Semi trucks as it seeks to reduce fuel costs and vehicle emissions. The reservation is one of the largest publicly announced orders Tesla has received, while production of the trucks is scheduled to begin by 2019.

Source: Reuters