Tazi Phillips, Global Animal

There might be a new item on the market soon for those who want to humanely enjoy the luxury of real leather. Scientists are attempting to develop meat in laboratories in order to bypass the controversial leather industry and create a sustainable food option for the growing human population. 

Photo credit: stinkenroboter/Flickr

In 2008, PETA announced a $1 million X-Prize style reward for the first group to successfully produce a synthetic meat that is comparable to natural meat products. PETA’s primary interest in the lab results was in replacing chicken factories, and the transport and slaughter of more than one million chickens eaten every hour in the U.S. alone. But the lab-grown meat has yet to make it into the consumer market.

Researchers say that the main reason is that only about 40 percent of people are interested in consuming cultured meat. 

Price is also a limiting factor. A company in the Netherlands hopes to release an in vitro meat patty next month, but it won’t come cheap. The lab meat will come with a price tag of $345,000.

While lab-grown meat might not be a hit among consumers and not an economically viable option any time soon, one company is moving past the problem of in vitro meat as food, hoping to create lab-grown leather. 

Modern Meadow, recently backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, expects to commercially produce in vitro leather within the next five years. Their goal is to modernize the leather industry by editing out the need to raise, slaughter and transport animals, creating an animal and environmentally friendly product. Company cofounder and CEO Andras Forgacs told the online science magazine Txchnologist, “There’s much less controversy around using leather that doesn’t involve killing animals.” 

Leather hides drying in the sun in Fes, Morocco. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips.

The technology behind the process of in vitro leather is science Modern Meadow is confident in. In five steps, the company will transform live cells into leather available for manufacturing products without exploiting animals the way the leather industry has for centuries.

Animal rights organization PETA reports that every year, over a billion animals are slaughtered globally for their skins and hides. Most leather produced and sold in the U.S. comes from cows, but leather is also made from pigs, sheep, goats, ostriches, kangaroos, snake, bison, elephant, crocodile, and many more innocent animals. 

After an initial cell biopsy taken from a donor animal, Modern Meadow scientists will grow the sample cells and give them time to naturally mature. After several weeks, the cells stop receiving food, causing the skin tissue to turn to hide. Because the lab-grown hides do not have hair or tough outer skin on them, they go through a shortened tanning process that decreases the amount of toxic chemicals needed. 

Researchers from Oxford University and Amsterdam University concluded that the environmental impact of cultured meat production is far less than that of conventionally produced meat. The technology and science magazine Txchnologist reports that in vitro meat expends 7-45 percent less energy than conventional farming methods, produces 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 99 percent less land, and requires 82-96 percent less water. 

“The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce,” Forgacs says. 

The idea of flesh grown in labs is something that many people will shy away from, even though there will be no living animal attached to that burger or pair of leather shoes you buy at the store. But perhaps it is something we should take a closer look at. While alternatives to leather abound, including cotton, linen, rubber, ramie, canvas, and synthetics like chlorenol used by Nike, there will always be a few who won’t give up their animal hides (we’re looking at you, Kim Kardashian). So, for those who stick to old habits, the process of in vitro leather will save millions of animal lives at a lower cost to the environment.