First-ever lab-grown meat in space shows it may be the eco-friendly future

Aleph Farms has taken one small step for man.

Meat of the future could ditch the animals, save the planet’s resources, and even come from outer space.

Aleph Farms, the Israel-based firm working on lab-grown meat, announced Monday that it has successfully produced meat on the International Space Station. The firm claims it’s the first time the procedure has ever been conducted in space. The breakthrough demonstrates how the nascent technology can be used to provide meat in more conditions than ever before.

It’s a development that could arrive at the ideal time. United Nations figures from 2006 showed that 18 percent of human-produced greenhouse gases come from the meat industry and livestock farming. Instead of using a giant farm to host and grow animals, lab-based meat takes a small sample of stem cells and encourages their growth in a nutrient-rich solution using a bioreactor. As the world seeks to reduce its climate emissions and use resources smarter, cell-based meat could help achieve those goals.

The company tells Inverse that the cell samples were sent up on the Soyuz MS-15 on September 25 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:57 p.m. local time. The rocket also carried three crew members. The following day, aboard the Russian section of the International Space Station, a team used cellular agriculture and 3D bioprinting to create the meat.

The Soyuz mission taking off.
The Soyuz mission taking off.

The cells sent on the rocket acted as the building blocks for the end product. The team used 3D bioprinting with a magnetic force to aggregate the cells into a small-scale muscle tissue, creating the resultant meat. The tissue is pretty small, measuring just 1.5 millimeters, but it could be a crucial step to demonstrating the benefits of the futuristic foodstuff.

The prize up for grabs is a meat that uses far less resources, including water, compared to traditional sources.

“In space, we don’t have 10,000 or 15,000 liters (just under 4,000 gallons) of water available to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef,” Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, said in a statement. “This joint experiment marks a significant first step toward achieving our vision to ensure food security for generations to come, while preserving our natural resources.”

The company argues that the breakthrough shows how the term “lab-grown” could become less relevant over time, as the meat moves from early experimental laboratories to large-scale factories more akin to breweries and yogurt production plants.

Oleg Skripochka, a Roscosmos cosmonaut and one of the three on the Soyuz MS-15 mission, was pictured conducting the experiment in agency-released images:

Oleg Skripochka conducting the experiment on the ISS.
Oleg Skripochka conducting the experiment on the ISS.

Lab-grown meat: an idea whose time has come?

Lab-grown meat burst onto the scene in 2013, when Dutch researcher Mark Post cooked a small hamburger at a studio in London. The taste testers on site told Inverse in July that the burger was comparable to a McDonald’s patty.

The experiment didn’t come cheap. The burger was estimated to cost around $330,000, well beyond the weekly food spend of the average American. By July 2019, industry insiders were claiming that mass-produced burgers of a similar variety could reach $10 per patty when they hit stores in 2021.

The product differs from plant-based meat, touted by the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which use vegetarian ingredients to recreate the taste of meat. Consultancy firm AT Kearney predicted in June 2019 that plant meats could take 10 percent of the meat market by 2025 versus traditional meats on 90 percent. However, by 2040, the firm predicts that traditional meat would account for just 40 percent, with plant-based meats on 25 percent and lab meat on 35 percent.

An Aleph Farms researcher takes a measurement.
An Aleph Farms researcher takes a measurement.

Aleph Farms worked with a number of firms to produce the space meat. The bioprinting facilities were powered by Russia-based 3D Bioprinting Solutions, and the cells were provided by United States-based Meal Source Technologies. The firm also worked with Finless Foods, an American firm looking to grow fish meat in a lab.

Other firms are exploring exotic meats like lobster, kangaroo and foie gras. Japan-based IntegriCulture has also touted the possibility of experimental foods like a mixed beef, chicken and lobster steak. The future of meat could be out of this world in more ways than one.

Media via CPK; Roscosmos, Roscosmos, Afik Gabay, Aleph Farms