Why commercially viable cultured meat will be the single most important invention of this century.

Three years ago, I stayed in a small village commune called Damanhur in Italy, a place where people had taken retreat under an Italian Guru called Falco. The place and people were fascinating.  Their names had been changed to animal and flowers ones. They made their own houses, grew their own food, created art, made wine and cheese and had received international awards in each one of these things. These are people who want to exercise their moral and creative facilities to their utmost and make the world the beautiful place it should be. Look it up on the Net. They were experimenting on two things: a machine which allowed us to hear the talk of plants — and they have already patented this and I heard the plants speak/ sing myself when it was attached at random to any leaves. The second was to clone meat cells so that people could eat meat without having to kill animals. I saw some of the work they were doing but they have a long way to go.

Historic

This year a group of people will meet in Washington for a lunch to change the world. The meal should consist of fried chicken and nothing else, but while it may look like chicken, have the texture of chicken and even taste like chicken, it will never have lived or breathed. Five years ago, Peta, the U.S. animal welfare group, threw a challenge to the world community of scientists. They had until June 30, 2012 to prove they could make “cultured”, or laboratory meat, in commercial quantities. The first scientist to show that artificial chicken can be grown in quantity and be indistinguishable from “real” chicken flesh will be awarded $1m.

The challenge has been taken up by a number of people. Damanhur, for one. Mark Post, head of the Department of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands for another. Post has been given $300,000 by the Dutch government and by an anonymous donor to develop his stem cell research. He has claimed he will produce a synthetic beef burger this year. Post cannot win the Peta prize because he is working with beef, not chicken, but he has successfully grown strips of meat a few centimetres long.

U.S. scientist Vladimir Mironov, working with a Brazilian meat company has taken embryonic muscle cells from turkeys and successfully grown muscle tissue, but only in very small quantities. Another group of scientists, at Utrecht university in the Netherlands, is experimenting with stem cells harvested from embryos. One stem cell could potentially produce tonnes of meat, with all the stem cells from one cow being enough to feed an entire country.

The research is complex and hard. Scientists say they need much more grant money and the solution is still a decade away. They are confident that tissue-engineered meat will eventually be developed. So far all the meat “made” has been nearly colourless, tasteless and lacking texture. Scientists may have to add fat and even lab-grown colourings. But that is added to real meat as well, as it exists today in fast food joints.

The prize of being able to one day grow hundreds of tonnes of meat from stem cells is potentially vast, say animal welfare groups and food manufacturers. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation expects world consumption of meat to double between 2000 and 2050, and the challenge of increasing food supplies with shrinking land and water will be enormous. You cannot feed a population of seven billion people and more on free range meat. There isn't enough space and land to do so.

Answer to many problems

In fact, meat consumption is rising in countries such as China and India. The future of the planet depends upon the development of effective meat substitutes. Without it there will be more animal cruelty, more depletion of resources and an increase in diseases such as avian flu. Cultured meat has the added advantage of requiring far less energy and space to grow. Analysis by scientists from Oxford and Amsterdam last year showed the process will use only one per cent of the land and four per cent of the water compared with conventional meat. For vegetarians, the prize is less animal suffering. More than 40 billion chickens, fish, pigs and cows are killed every year for food in the U.S. alone, in horrific ways. In vitro meat would spare animals from this suffering.

I would give the million dollar prize to begin with to Linda McCartney, the late wife of the Beatle Paul McCartney. When she became a vegetarian, she put all her money into inventing foods that tasted, smelt and felt like meat, fish and chicken, but were made from soya and wheat. She marketed them in England under her own name. Hundreds of similar companies sprang up. Today there are thousands of products on the market for people who like the taste and texture of animal flesh but want to avoid animal suffering. Chinese Buddhist monks have long made vegetarian beancurd products that get as close as any person should want to the texture of meat, without eating the real thing. In Rajasthan I have tasted a dish made of wheat that tastes exactly like meat and was invented 200 years ago by Rajasthani women who wanted their husbands to be vegetarian.

If Peta succeeds, Ingrid Newkirk, its head, and the inventor should both get a Nobel Prize because this will be the single most important invention since electricity. It will save resources like land and water, it will remove suffering, it will allow the forest to grow back and the Earth to cool again, and it will stop the use of pesticides and antibiotics on animals and through them to us. It will make the earth a happier place. If any Indian scientist succeeds I will give Rs 1 crore to him/ her.

To join the animal welfare movement, contact: gandhim@nic.in