Antonio Pasolini: For many people, meat and leather are an ethical and environmental nightmare, causing misery to billions of animals and wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecosystems. While mankind is unlikely to turn entirely vegan in the next generation, a more humane and cleaner type of leather could become available in the near future (and meat a few years later) thanks to the development of an in-vitro version of the material being developed by Modern Meadow.
The company’s founder and CEO Andras Forgacs recently revealed to Txchnologist, a GE-sponsored technology online magazine, that Modern Meadow has focused on leather because it is a simpler structure than meat, although he’s also working on the latter (and he’s not alone there). Modern Meadow’s research is being supported with funding from PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel via Breakout Labs, which supports early-stage new technologies.
In reality, the process would not be completely animal-free, since it would start with a puncture biopsy of an animal. The extracted cells would be isolated and possibly genetically modified (not for meat, though). They would then be reproduced by the billions in a bioreactor and centrifuged to eliminate the agent that supports cell growth. Next, they would be lumped together to create aggregated spheres of cells, which would be then layered and fused together in a process called bioassembly.
The layered and fused cells would subsequently be placed in a bioreactor to mature, where they would be fed for a few weeks. The skin tissue would evolve into hide, and muscle and fat would be harvested for food. Here comes the good news for environmentalists: because the hide would not have hair or a tough outer skin, the tanning process would be shorter and require fewer chemicals.
Andras said Modern Meadow’s lab leather is still in the development phase and his team will be spending the next two years perfecting processes and materials. While in-vitro meat could take as long as a decade to become a commercial reality, fully-fledged lab-grown leather production could be ready for its close-up in as little as five years.
He noted that the challenges are related to engineering, as the technology itself is mature. He has the experience to back up his claim. Organovo pioneered the 3D bioprinting of organs for a range of purposes, from drug testing to transplantation.
Back in August when the funding was announced, Breakout Lab’s executive director Lindy Fishburne said that they’d chosen Modern Meadow as grant recipients because the company combines “regenerative medicine with 3D printing to imagine an economic and compassionate solution to a global problem.”
And it’s a massive problem.
Livestock accounts for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, besides polluting waterways, causing soil erosion and being the main driver of deforestation of the Amazon forest, not to mention the immense suffering it causes to animals. Leather is also the source of massive pollution by chemicals, especially in India, and the production cycle involves a great deal of waste.
Global demand for meat is expected to double by 2050 and considering that currently we farm, feed, transport and slaughter around 70 billion land animals per year, the topic has gained momentum amongst the international environmental community. True, in-vitro meat and leather have an ecological footprint as well, but it’s insignificant compared with the devastation caused by livestock. And there's no slaughtering involved.