Clean Insects: New Directions In Cultivated Meat
Most of the discussion surrounding cultured or lab-grown meat is focused on replacing meats that the average Westerner will recognize, like cow meat, chicken meat, and pig meat. The technology is primarily seen as a way for consumers to keep the foods they love without the animal welfare and environmental costs that accompany them. But what if the same technology was used to make foods that are wholly new to most of us? This paper looks at the possibility of lab-grown insect meat in our future, including both the hurdles that it must overcome and the reasons it may be more practical than other lab-grown meats.
Why would we look into insect cell cultures, given how few people in our society see them as food? The main reason is their ease of growth compared to mammalian cells. Growing the cells required for a beef burger, for example, requires strict control of temperature and growth conditions. Insect cells can be cultured at a wider range of temperatures, and require less specific growth media. This ease-of-growth is part of the reason why insect cells are already being cultured for non-food purposes, like creating bio-insecticides, vaccines, and even organic robots.
The idea of growing insect cells for food was first proposed in 2001, but little progress has been made since then. The common fruit fly and the tobacco hawk moth are some of the most commonly-studied insects with regards to cultured cell growth. Cells are typically taken from fly and moth embryos before being sterilized and placed in a solution containing fetal bovine serum, in which they proliferate. Researchers have also been able to grow insect fat cells in a similar manner, which are important for taste, texture, and nutrition.
Of course, there are still some obstacles to overcome. On the technical side, growing cells of any kind is still quite difficult, even if insect cells are on the lower end of that scale. The optimal medium for large-scale cell-growth has not yet been found, which is a necessary step before any kind of mass-production. Researchers also must find a suitable “ladder” to give the cells some type of structure. One possibility is mushroom chitosan, which is made from the same building blocks as chitin – the material in insect exoskeletons. This material is already considered safe by the FDA, which removes one regulatory hurdle in the process. However, nothing has yet been developed specifically for insect cells.
On the social and cultural side, insects are still not seen as food by the vast majority of Westerners, and many people are skeptical of lab-grown meat as well. Combining the two might make widespread consumption even less likely. The researchers believe that one way to mitigate this would be to use cultured insect meat as part of familiar, beloved dishes. For example, making spaghetti and meatballs with cricket meat instead of beef.
The researchers also include some other possibilities, including growing shellfish like lobster and crab through the same process as for insects. Given the close relationship between crustaceans and insects, it may be that lab-grown seafood may be a possibility in the near future. This would likely be more culturally acceptable than insect meat, and could act as a “gateway food” of sorts. Also mentioned was the possibility of growing meat that is more nutritious by isolating cells from the most nutritious part of the insect, and excluding parts that contain little value.
For animal advocates, this study could be used to argue in favor of cell growth technology as a tool to diversify our diets, and expose us to foods that would otherwise be difficult to come by. Just as food neophobia is common, so is neophilia – people may become interested in the novel foods that are made possible by cell culturing, and this may lead to greater social acceptance of the practice.