Tag Archives: livestock

New approach to lab-grown meat creates more realistic, more customizable steaks

A new study details how to create lab-grown meat that has a more natural taste and texture. The process will also allow more control over the structure of the meat, so consumers will be able to pick the exact amount of fat content or marbling they want.

Image via Pixabay.

Steakhouses today may ask customers how they’d like their meat to be cooked, but a new paper from McMaster University could mean they’ll soon ask how we’d like it “tuned”. Their paper describes how a more natural feeling and tasting type of lab-grown meat can be produced. According to the authors, this will provide a more “real meat” experience and allow people to have as much fat or marbling on their cut of meat as they want.

Sheets to slabs

“We are creating slabs of meat,” co-author Ravi Selvaganapathy says in a media release. “Consumers will be able to buy meat with whatever percentage of fat they like – just like they do with milk.”

The authors, both from McMaster’s School of Biomedical Engineering, developed a new technique to create lab-grown meat. It involves stacking thin sheets of cultivated muscle and fat tissues, then merging them together. It’s similar to the approach we use to grow human tissue for transplants, the authors explain.

Each of these sheets is as thin as a sheet of paper, and they’re made from cells first grown in a lab culture. They naturally bind to one another while the cells are alive, says Selvaganapathy. This process helps impart the improved texture to the meat. The team tested their approach with cells harvested from lab mice. They didn’t eat that one, but they did eventually grow, cook, and taste a sample from rabbit cells.

“It felt and tasted just like meat,” Selvaganapathy reports.

Although their experiments didn’t include these types of cells as well, the team is confident that beef, pork, or chicken will be growable using this approach in the future. The stacking-sheets approach is also easily scaled-up for industrial production, they add.

The global demand for meat is putting a heavy strain on nature, as it takes a lot of food, water, and land to grow our livestock — and they also produce ample methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Factory farms also need to feed their animals antibiotics constantly to avoid disease, which is helping bacteria develop resistance to drugs. Lab-grown meat can help address this demand much more cleanly and efficiently.

“Meat production right now is not sustainable,” Selvaganapathy contends. “There has to be an alternative way of creating meat.”

The McMaster team is currently working on a start-up company that can produce meat using this technique and sell it commercially.

The paper “Engineering Murine Adipocytes and Skeletal Muscle Cells in Meat-like Constructs Using Self-Assembled Layer-by-Layer Biofabrication: A Platform for Development of Cultivated Meat” has been published in the journal Cells Tissues Organs.


Medieval Christian monks may have sped up the evolution of the modern chicken

Chickens, the world’s most numerous livestock, provide food and money for hundreds of millions of people. It’s believed this fruitful relationship, obviously for the patron — us humans — first appeared some 6,000 years ago when we domesticated the first red jungle fowls in Asia. It took a while, though, before chickens become very proficient and efficient egg laying animals. According to a new study, the genes that essentially made way for the modern chicken were selected less than 1,200 years ago. Interestingly, these ‘super’ domesticated chickens may have been bred as a result of Christian fasting traditions.


Credit: Pixabay.

To learn when and how the modern chicken made friends with human breeders, an international team of researchers looked at data gathered by previous studies. This includes data on specific gene variants that look like they appeared as a result of selective evolutionary pressure. For instance, the chicken’s thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR) has been previously identified to enable faster egg-laying and to reduce the aggressivity of the animal.

According to archaeological evidence, chicken bones started to dramatically increase in volume from the 9th century C.E. onwards. Knowing this, the researchers developed a new mathematical model that could pinpoint in time when the traits that make the chicken such an important livestock started to increase in frequency in Europe.

From about 920 CE, selection for the TSHR variant began to be widespread. Around this time, only 40% of the chicken were estimated to have this gene variant but by 1100 C.E., virtually 100% of all chickens had the TSHR. It’s no coincidence that this timeline overlaps with a huge jump in urbanization but also a period when Christian edicts enforced fasting and the exclusion of four-legged animals from the diet. Chickens were obviously exempted from this rule, as was their meat and eggs. Their small size and easy maintenance also made them ideal livestock in crowded urban or sub-urban environments.

“We cannot say which one of these was most important but most likely a combination of all these factors affected selective pressures on European chickens and consequently their evolution.” Says author Anders Eriksson.

“Several independent archaeological studies have documented substantial increases in the frequency of chicken remains between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, as well as a shift towards the management of adult hens, presumably to increase egg production.” said Mark Thomas, an author on the study. “Intriguingly, this is the period when selection on the TSHR variant most likely kicked off”.

The study is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it shows just how much of an impact and how easy it is for humans to drive a trait. Really, two centuries is like the blink of an eye on an evolutionary timescale. Secondly, it shows how important human customs and traditions are in shaping the crops, plants, and animals that we breed. The findings published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.also show “that simply because a domestic trait is ubiquitous, it may not have been a target for selection at the very beginning of the domestication process”, says Greger Larson, who led the research team.

US cattle farmers have been feeding cows candy for years, spilled Skittles reveal

A trucking accident on the Dodge County highway revealed the US livestock industry’s sweetest secret — farmers have been feeding cows defective Skittles on the down low to avoid paying for corn.

Image credits Dodge County Sheriff’s Office / Facebook.

Wisconsin cattle farmers are in a sticky situation with customers after a truck spilled thousands of Skittles on County Highway S intended as animal feed. The candy, all colored in pink and carrying the brand’s distinctive white ‘S’, didn’t meet quality standards and was actually cheaper than corn.

The Sheriff’s department reported that the Skittles were boxed up in the back of a flatbed truck. Due to rain, the crates got wet and slipped onto the road and broke apart, spewing candy everywhere. Highway maintenance teams were deployed to dispose of the sweets.

In wake of the finding, public voices raised concern that this practice would negatively impact the quality of meat. Experts, however say that there’s no cause for alarm — as the practice has been going on for a few years now. The candy is not only cheaper than traditional feed (especially the defective ones) but they may actually provide a host of other benefits.

“Cows need carbohydrates, as well. They need sugar. It provides energy and calories for them,” said Liz Binversie, Brown County UW-Extension Agriculture Educator. “Your body doesn’t really distinguish candy vs syrup vs corn vs whatever,” she added.

“It actually has a higher ratio of fat (than) actually feeding them straight corn,” said Joseph Watson, owner of United Livestock Commodities, who swapped for candy during the 2012 drought when corn prices skyrocketed.

And some argue that the practice may also be more environmentally friendly than using traditional feed and throwing these candies out. John Waller, a professor of animal nutrition at the University of Tennessee, said for NBC:

“I think it’s a viable (diet).”

“It keeps fat material from going out in the landfill, and it’s a good way to get nutrients in these cattle. The alternative would be to put (the candy) in a landfill somewhere.”

I do see his argument — waste is nobody’s friend. But how can Skittles be ‘defective’? It’s candy. It’s supposed to be sweet, and that’s all it has to be. If you look at the big enough picture, producing a pound of the stuff has a higher impact than producing a pound of corn. It makes sense to feed it to cows rather than dumping them, sure, but I’d rather not have to make the choice in the first place.

Still, with corn prices at an all time high, it’s unlikely that the farmers will wean off candy any time soon.  At the end of the day the cows get to chow on some sweets and I guess that’s nice.

Another upside to the whole story is that the Dodge County Sheriff’s posts about the incident are pure gold:

They later said that the crash actually helped, since the roads had been icy for days and the candy provided “extra traction”.

Never change, Dodge County department.

How feeding pigs with leftovers can save the rainforest

In 2001 a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom was traced back to a farmer that illegally fed uncooked waste to his pigs. It left the country’s agricultural industry in tatters — over 10 million sheep and cattle were killed in an effort to contain the disease. Later that year EU legislators banned the use of human food waste (or swill) as pig feed, a decision that is now coming under a lot of fire from disgruntled livestock farmers and the scientific community.

Image via wikimedia

Following the ban, EU pig farmers had to turn to grain and soybean-based feedstock for their animals, a costly and land-consuming swift; a new study, looking into the effects this decision has had on the industry, estimates that lifting the ban would not only provide a use for the estimated 100 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year, but also save 1.8 million hectares of global agricultural land – an area roughly half the size of Germany. These areas include hundreds of thousands of acres of uniquely biodiverse land in developing countries, such as South America’s forests and savannah.

Hot leftovers, hotter debate

The main concern of legislators that decided upon the ban was preventing a similar outbreak from hitting what was at that time a struggling industry. But while the EU took this drastic decision other countries, most notably Japan, responded by (very successfully) regulating the heat-treatment system that turns food waste to animal feed. Japan is currently reusing over 35% of its food waste as feedstock, and its swill-fed “Eco-pork” makes a pretty profit in Europe as a premium product.

This is why researchers and farmers have come to describe the EU’s ban as a “knee-jerk reaction,” a panicked hit on the big red “NO” button that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

The authors looked at the current land use of EU’s pork industry, availability of food waste and quality and quantity of the meat from feed trials that compares pigswill to grain-based diets to estimate how much land could be saved if the ban was lifted. The models in the paper show that pigswill reintroduction would not only decrease the amount of land the EU pork industry requires by 21.5%.

Where there’s swill there’s a way

Lead researcher of the study, Erasmus zu Ermgassen from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology said in the paper:

“Following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, different countries looked at the same situation, the same evidence, and came to opposite conclusions for policy. In many countries in East Asia we have a working model for the safe use of food waste as pig feed. It is a highly regulated and closely monitored system that recycles food waste and produces low-cost pig feed with a low environmental impact.”

The meat industry is a big part of the global agricultural sector — some 75% of farmland worldwide is used to feed and rear our livestock. The European Union reports that around 34kg of pork are produced domestically per capita each year, a huge 21 and a half million tonnes of meat in total. And much of the industry’s environmental burden can be attributed to the farms that grow their feed — dedicated farming of cereal and soybean meal uses up in excess of 1.2 million hectares of land across South American countries.

But swill is readily available, doesn’t require any new farmland to be cleared and is much cheaper than soybean-based feed. Reintroducing swill feeding would reduce operating costs of EU pig farmers by 50%, the researchers report. So why are legislators reticent in changing current policy? Zu Ermgassen argues that those concerns are largely based on incorrect assumptions that feeding pigs our leftovers is unnatural.

“Pigs are omnivorous animals; in the wild they would eat anything they could forage for, from vegetable matter to other animal carcasses, and they have been fed food waste since they were domesticated by humans 10,000 years ago. Swill actually provides a more traditional diet for pigs than the grain-based feed currently used in modern EU systems,” he said.

“A recent survey found that 25% of smallholder farmers in the UK admit to illegally feeding uncooked food waste to their pigs, so the fact is that the current ban is not particularly safe from a disease-outbreak perspective. Feeding uncooked food waste is dangerous because pigs can catch diseases from raw meat, but a system supporting the regulated use of heat-treated swill does not have the same risks,” he added.

As demand for meat and dairy products is believed to increase by 60% till 2050, reducing the environmental footprint of our livestock farms will become increasingly critical. Zu Ermgassen points out that economic and environmental concern is driving a reassessment of EU animal feed bans that were put in place in the 2000s, as well as attempts to recycle food waste more effectively. The EU is currently looking into repealing bans on using waste pig and poultry products as fish feed and reintroducing insects as pig and poultry feed.

“The reintroduction of swill feeding in the EU would require backing from pig producers, the public, and policy makers, but it has substantial potential to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of EU pork production. It is time to reassess whether the EU’s blanket ban on the use of food waste as feed is the right thing for the pig industry,” he said.

Study finds most people would support a “meat tax”

Agriculture is a big driver of climate change, with the meat industry standing out among the rest as a source of CO2 emissions and environmental damage; lowering demand for meat or ensuring that farms have as little environmental impact is possible, but costly. Would you be willing to eat less, if it was for the good of the planet? Pay more for your meat? A new study suggests that the idea isn’t as controversial as you may believe on first glance.

Image via freestockphotos

Researchers from the UK policy institute Chatham House surveyed people from 12 countries and focus groups in Brazil, China, the UK, and the US, to get a feel for the public opinion on this issue. Their findings show growing public support for a “meat tax,” as well as other solutions such as more vegetarian options in school cafeterias or lowering subsidies given to livestock farmers.

On the whole, participants believed that the government should lead the effort to address unsustainable consumption of meat, but how feasible is that? Livestock farming is responsible for between 10 to 15 percent of the global emissions of greenhouse gases. Currently, an average person in industrialized countries consumes around twice as much meat as experts deem to be healthy, and the average American almost four times as much (250g per person per day), the study reports. But while consumption is plateaued in these areas, as population increases and more countries develop strong economies demand is only going to increase, making this industry an even bigger emitter — global meat consumption is estimated to increase by 75% by 2050.

Current levels of meat consumption.
Image via wikipedia

Governments understandably fear a backlash from voters over interference in such a personal choice as diet. As public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is so low, there is very little pressure on ruling bodies to do anything about it, so they don’t — only 21 of the 120 national plans submitted to the upcoming Paris climate conference include commitments to reduce emissions from the livestock industry.

This “cycle of inertia” means that dietary change continues to be a low policy priority despite its importance. The report however does advocate for governmental action in this issue, and while it does not put a hard figure on how much people would be willing to bear in extra taxes for their meat products, the authors do note that any “backlash to unpopular policies would likely be short-lived.”

By raising awareness of the negative impact of excess meat consumption on the planet — and our health — more people would be inclined for the government to act, researchers say.




Sustainable livestock requires pastures with shrubs and trees

It may seem like a shock for many people (especially those outside America) that it takes research to know livestock should be fed with pastures and shrubs; but most cattle in the US are fed with grain and corn, because it is cheaper due to subsidies. Unfortunately, this method is unsustainable and will only end up hurting both the economy and the environment in the long run.

A silvopastural landscape.

Professor Donald Broom, from the University of Cambridge led a research which concluded that the future of livestock should include forest-pastoral (silvopastoral) systems which include shrubs and trees with edible leaves or fruits as well as herbage.

“Consumers are now demanding more sustainable and ethically sourced food, including production without negative impacts on animal welfare, the environment and the livelihood of poor producers. Silvopastoral systems address all of these concerns with the added benefit of increased production in the long term.”

Most of the cattle production done today occurs on cleared land with only grasses grown specifically for the cows; this of course means removing the trees and shrubs, as well as an increased use of pesticide. Also, there is a lot of fertilizer used to maintain the pasture and it usually contaminates the soil and waterways by agricultural chemicals.

As a sustainable alternative, researchers advocate the use of a diverse group of edible plants such as that in a silvopastural landscape which:

  • promotes healthy soil with better water retention
  • helps fight soil erosion
  • encourages predation of harmful animals
  • minimizes greenhoue emissions
  • reduces the carbon footprint of the activity and minimizes greenhouse emissions
  • reduces injury risk and stress for animals
  • increases biodiversity
  • improves job satisfaction for farms.

“The planting as forage plants of both shrubs and trees whose leaves and small branches can be consumed by farmed animals can transform the prospects of obtaining sustainable animal production,” said Professor Broom. “Such planting of ‘fodder trees’ has already been successful in several countries, including the plant Chamaecytisus palmensis which is now widely used for cattle feed in Australia.”

Farming is one of the main enemies of biodiversity – it’s estimated that 33% of the total land surface of the world is used for livestock production.

“It is clear that silvopastoral systems increase biodiversity, improve animal welfare and provide good working conditions while enabling a profitable farming business. The next step is to get farmers to adopt this proven, sustainable model.”

His paper ‘Sustainable, efficient livestock production with high biodiversity and good welfare for animals’ was published today, 25 September, in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.