The future of environmentally friendly food may rely heavily on lab-grown insect meat, according to a new scientific report. Unlike lab-grown beef, pork, and other traditional meat products, these insect alternatives would require less resources to grow, also being more suitable for mass production and genetic modification. Taking them from the lab to the dinner plate may require a complex system of robots and lights, however.
The potential benefits of lab-grown insect meat were recently published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, where researchers with Tufts University explain that lab-grown beef, pork, and chicken would come with confounding factors that may make mass production difficult while reducing any environmental benefits otherwise made possible by lab-based meat production.
The current livestock system has been heavily criticized for its impact on health, the environment, and its general cruelty toward animals. Efforts to mitigate certain issues using genetic modification have had marginal benefits at best, ultimately resulting in a turn of attention toward plant-based diets and, looking farther into the future, to meat grown in labs.
Insects have regularly been presented as the ideal alternative to traditional livestock; they require less water and other resources while producing less waste. Getting consumers to actually eat the insects will likely require heavy processing into products that resemble traditional foods, however, including protein-infused non-meat products.
The new report points out that lab-grown insect meat could be genetically modified across categories of growth, flavor, and nutrition profiles. Less demanding environments are needed to grow insects compared to mammals and birds; they also require less energy and are better suited for lab spaces, such as vertical systems.
When it comes to growing insect meat in labs, the report’s lead author Natalie Rubio explained:
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. Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation.
The meat could be stimulated using light and bio-robotics to cause contractions, a necessary step for getting the expected ‘meat’ texture. A big mystery remains, however, and that’s how the lab-grown inspect meat will taste. Until the first culture is produced, no one can offer an answer.