A new study suggests that lab-grown insect meat -- fed on plants, and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition and flavour -- could be a superior green alternative for high volume, nutritious food production. "Due to the environmental, public health and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods," said Natalie Rubio from Tufts University in the US.
Genetically modified livestock, for example, that produce less methane or resist disease, can do little to relieve issues like land and water degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss, according to the study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. However, for meat-lovers, soy- or mushroom-based substitutes just don't hit the spot -- and some plant crops are as thirsty as livestock.
Insect farming has a much lower water and space requirement and twice as much of cricket are edible than of a big-boned, big-bellied cow. Unsurprisingly though, creepy crawlies are proving even harder for consumers to swallow. Lab-grown meat could also squeeze water and space savings furthest of all, without compromising on taste, researchers said. Culturing beef, pork or chicken cells might require even more energy and resources than livestock farming, they said.
A better solution, said Rubio, may lie at the intersection of all these options: lab-grown insect meat -- fed on plants, and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition and flavour. "Compared to cultured mammalian, avian and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen and osmolarity conditions," said Rubio.
"Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for bio-manufacture of insecticides, drugs and vaccines," he said. Research for these applications has already led to inexpensive, animal-free growth media for insect cells -- including soy- and yeast-based formulas -- as well as successful 'suspension culture'.
"In most mammalian muscle cell culture systems, the cells have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface -- which is complex to scale up for mass food production. "Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation," Rubio said. Technology developed to stimulate the movement of insect tissue for bio-robotics could also be applied to food production, since regular contraction may be required for cultured insect muscle to develop a 'meaty' texture. A particularly efficient method is optogenetic engineering, whereby cells are made to contract in response to light by introducing a new gene -- another advantage of insect cells, which more readily accept genetic modifications than do other animal cells.
"Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn't ready for consumption," Rubio said. "Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling the development of insect cells into muscle and fat and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture. "For the latter, sponges made from chitosan -- a mushroom-derived fibre that is also present in the invertebrate exoskeleton -- are a promising option," he said.
(With inputs from agencies.)