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Interview with Dr. Arianna Ferrari

© Irma Cakalli

Dr. Arianna Ferrari from the research project “Visions of in-vitro meat” (VIF)

Dear Dr. Ferrari, you are working on the project “Visions of in-vitro meat”. What are you doing here exactly?


The topic of “in-vitro meat” is not very well-known in Germany. The project critically analyses the visions of a future with in-vitro meat. What interactions are there between this innovation and society? We are analyzing the conditions for acceptability of in-vitro meat. To do this we carry out empirical surveys with experts, stakeholders and focus groups in addition to analyzing relevant literature. 


The project is affiliated to the Institute for Technical Assessment and Systems Analysis in Karlsruhe. Can you explain how this fits together? 


We are interested in the interface between technical development, society and politics. I am a philosopher and an animal ethicist and look into how animals are used in research and technical development and how this changes human-animal relationships. In this project I ask questions such as: How would in-vitro meat change our human-animal relationship? How do we envision our future with in-vitro meat? What will the lives of the animals needed for the production of in-vitro meat (for the extraction of stem cells) be like in future?


What does in-vitro meat mean exactly?


Firstly you need stem cells that are taken from the living animal by means of a muscle biopsy. This is a minor intervention which the animal survives without further harm. To enable these cells to grow you need a suitable nutrient in the petri dish that also contains the growth factor. Fetal calf serum is currently used here. 


How do you get the calf serum?


Fetal calf serum is a fluid that is taken from the heart of bovine fetuses by means of a puncture that is carried out without an anesthetic. It has been proven that this procedure is painful. Moreover, fetal calf serum also constitutes a health risk as it could transmit diseases.  


Are there any alternatives?


Some researchers are already working on the production and utilization of plant-derived serum, from algae or fungus, for example. A procedure for producing a non-animal medium was presented in 2015 by some in-vitro meat innovators.


In a few YouTube videos enthusiastic researchers claim that in-vitro meat could mean the end of intensive livestock farming. What do you think about this? 


It is nothing new where in-vitro meat is concerned for researchers to present their research enthusiastically and look for investors. It is normal to try to raise awareness, especially where new technologies still in the initial stages are concerned. One task of our project is to examine these promises carefully and scrutinize them critically. This not only involves technical problems, but also the question of the motivation and values of the researchers. Whether or not the technical and social obstacles (e.g. the question of acceptance) can actually be overcome in the next three to four years remains to be seen.


What are the dangers of making announcements that are too enthusiastic? 


Everything is still a vision. The impact on animals is still unclear should in-vitro meat come on the market. Perhaps it will initially be just another product alongside conventional meat. Moreover, the question arises as to how researchers will treat the animals from which stem cells have been taken. One researcher has said there must be controlled breeding of animals to ensure we get robust cells from them. In other words animals will continue to be bred for in-vitro meat consumption. But this can also be viewed in a positive light: we still have the possibility of controlling the research and saying: carry out research, by all means, but under specific conditions. 


What about the facts and figures surrounding in-vitro research?


There only very few of these. The burger produced from the stem cells of a cow that was presented in London in 2013 by the physiologist Mark Post and his team from the University of Maastricht cost 325,000 dollars. The same research topic recently claimed that the price had dropped to just under 12 dollars per burger. However, it is difficult to quote exact figures, because there is still no large-scale process for the production of in-vitro meat. 


Would in-vitro meat have ecological advantages?


A study from 2011 is continuously quoted in the media, one in which it is claimed that great ecological benefits will be reaped from in-vitro meat with respect to land and water utilization and greenhouse gas emissions. However, subsequent studies have questioned this. One study from 2015 indicates that in-vitro meat will indeed bring advantages for land and water utilization where poultry and pork are concerned, but fewer than those indicated in former studies. Although it has also been revealed that in-vitro meat requires even more electricity than conventionally produced poultry and pork. 


How can that be?


In-vitro meat must replace the internal work of the animals (digestion and development), so to speak. So the cells in the bioreactors must always be kept at a constant temperature and nourished accordingly. This heightened electricity demand has a decisive impact on the claim that in-vitro meat causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions than poultry and pork production, because everything depends on the source of the electricity - whether it comes from fossil fuels or from renewable energy. 


And what about beef?


Overall in-vitro meat causes fewer greenhouse emissions and comes off better than traditionally produced meat in this case. In addition the price and the possibility of large-scale production are always greatly influenced by the costs of the culture medium and the growth factor used for developing the tissue from the cells. 


Is there any danger of companies taking out a patent for their research, gaining a monopoly and then keeping the price high?


In some cases the individual processes are already protected by patents. This goes hand-in-hand with the way in which emigrating technologies function today, especially in the fields of biology and medicine and is by no means specific to in-vitro meat.  For this reason it can be assumed that companies will wish to compete quickly with conventional meat and will not only want to offer a healthier and better product, but one at a comparable price, as well. 


Is cultured meat healthier for humans?


Time and again innovators and researchers claim that no antibiotics are involved in the production of in-vitro meat. However, it must be emphasized that antibiotics were indeed used in the production of the first in-vitro burger derived from bovine stem cells. So it is still not clear today whether and to what extent antibiotics are in fact necessary for cell cultures.


… and apart from antibiotics?


It is mainly assumed in the relevant debate that the health risks involved in the consumption of meat are due to the bad quality conditions of meat production (including so-called intensive animal farming) and not to the frequency with which it is consumed. Nevertheless, an increasing number of studies in recent years indicate a connection between the excessive consumption of meat and cancer, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. It is still not known whether the risks are intrinsically linked with the consumption of meat itself or whether they result from the way the animals are kept (fodder and drugs). For this reason it is not clear whether and to what extent such health risks would also arise in the case of (widespread) consumption of in-vitro meat. 


What factors will be important in the coming years where in-vitro meat is concerned?


I believe it makes sense and is ethically acceptable to invest in the research for alternatives to fetal calf serum and other animal growth factors. The topic of alternative protein sources will gain continuously in importance, because the effects of the current production of animal products on the environment can no longer be overlooked. It would be a good thing if more information were provided about in-vitro meat, but at the same time keeping a critical eye on what is happening. As in-vitro meat is still a vision, many ethical aspects will only emerge in the course of time. But it is also good and important to think now about the world we wish to live in and whether and how an innovation such as in-vitro meat can change our view of animals. 


Would you eat in-vitro meat?


There are several reasons why I would not. My diet has been plant-based for many years, so I am no longer used to the taste of meat. Neither is in-vitro meat currently exempt from the suffering of animals and therefore not an alternative for me. I also find it difficult to imagine how animals can be viewed as cell suppliers in the society of today and still ensured a humane life. The real challenge and exciting question is whether in-vitro meat and other similar innovations will in future change the current moral view in favor of animals.