Recently the first hamburger made of in vitro meat got much attention, not in the last place because Google founder Sergey Brin was revealed as the primary funder of this project. Much of the appeal of in vitro meat, is because this development would allow us to reconcile our desire to consume meat with our commitment to animal welfare. In vitro meat eliminates the need to kill animals, and it also reduce the number of livestock needed to meet the demand for meat.
But meat is not the only popular food obtained from animals. Eggs and dairy are other much consumed animal products. Even if by switching to in vitro meat will reduce the number of livestock held for meat, a large number is still required to produce milk and eggs.
And not only the number of animals needed is a problem from the perspective of animal welfare, but also the issue of young male animals. Since the latter are mostly valueless for dairy and egg industry, they are usually killed soon after their birth. But the male young account for half of the new-born animals.
In case for dairy the solution is quite simple, instead of using animal milk we could switch to plant milk. To “improve” plant milk we could genetically engineer plants to produce animal proteins such as casein. From plant milk one could produce all kind of dairy products such yoghurt or ice cream. I once read an article about extracting proteins directly from grass, which could be used for subsequent human consumption.
Eggs seem to be more difficult to replace, but like meat most consumption of eggs is in processed food. Eggs are used as binding or raising agents in many food products. Vegans and other people who do not consume eggs, have found several substitutes for eggs for these purposes, such as flax-seed and starch flour. By using these substitutes, the number of animals used for the production of eggs can be reduced.
But even if we are able to replace eggs in processed food products, there is still the “direct” consumption of eggs. The question is of course, if we can culture meat in a lab, can we cannot do the same thing with eggs? After all, the eggs we consume are nothing else than big cells. In vitro meat is produced by growing stem cells and turning those into muscle tissue. And as we have discussed here and here, stem cells can be turned into egg cells.
Once we have “artificial” (chicken) egg cell, we have still no (chicken) eggs. The challenge is now to simulate the processes which turn an egg cell into an egg in the laboratory. First we have to grow the egg, by feeding it nutrients. And subsequently, we have to give the grown egg a scale. But if this technology can be developed, we have a method to produce eggs for human consumption in a truly animal friendly way.
Space colonization and vegetarianism – this post discusses the importance of vegetarian diets in space settlements.
Space colonization and in vitro meat – this post discusses the prospects of in vitro meat for space colonists.