Is space-grown meat a breakthrough for the future of production?

An Israeli 3D biotech project has successfully grown artificial beef aboard the International Space Station.

14 November 2019

Lab-grown meat is certainly a futuristic concept. But how about lab-grown meat in space?

Last month, Israeli food tech start-up Aleph Farms were able to successfully produce nutritious, artificial beef from 3D bio-printed bovine cells aboard the International Space Station using a method that mimics the natural process of muscle-tissue regeneration that occurs inside a cow.

The beef, said by Aleph Farms to have been a ‘strip’ of steak, was grown from cells over a two-week period.

The success of the project is a notable leap forwards for the otherworldly concept of producing real meat in space, which would eliminate both the environmental and welfare problems inherent in current livestock production on Earth.

“To create food in gravitational environments different to those here on Earth shows both the enhancements we have made, but also the journey we are on to create Earth-like environments in space," Lembit Opik, former Lib Dem politician and current chairman of parliament for Asgardia (a space-ambitious micronation), tells Food Spark.

Space farming was one of Sainsbury's recent predictions for 150 years in the future, with this perhaps the very first step towards that reality. 

According to Opik, growing plants – and, by extension, primitive types of food – has been an area of interest ever since the advent of space exploration.

“Some of the first rocket experiments in the 1940s took seeds and seedlings into space to study the effect on their subsequent growth on Earth,” he explains. “But the first real ‘food’ grown and eaten in space wasn’t until 2015 aboard the ISS, where astronauts harvested a crop of romaine lettuce. Since then, there has been a real drive to grow and produce more and more complex foods.”

The main challenge, says Opik, is the lack of gravity. While it is relatively easy to provide plants with enough light, carbon dioxide and recycled water, they often struggle with a lack of direction normally provided by gravity – especially when it comes to roots. 

Spaced out

There are a growing number of influential Israeli tech startups making waves in areas such as sustainability, healthy snacking and sugar. Aleph Farms’ project, meanwhile, could be a step toward widespread food production in space. But it’s not simply about the pleasure of a good steak. Beef has been targeted due to its nutritional value.

“Beef and animal protein is a hugely important source of essential amino acids for a human’s diet,” says Opik. “These are the 12 components of protein that humans cannot create internally but instead must get from diet. It is also a really difficult thing to produce in space, so it serves as a marker that if this is possible, then why not everything else?”

Although space is infinite, one of the main problems – ironically – will be a lack of space to grow the food needed, especially in the early stages, while space stations remain expensive to produce.

“This will make it fairly imperative to minimise the space taken to produce the maximum nutrition when growing food,” says Opik. “The technology needed for this will undoubtedly have applications on Earth, especially given the current and upcoming challenges associated with an ever-increasing human population – namely food shortages and malnutrition.”

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