Meet the Nyama Choma that is Made from a Test Tube

He has been selling meat in Tena Estate since I was in my late teens and donning a Tupac-like bandana. His corner butchery has ample space and a compound where two cars can easily park (three if one of them is a Vitz).

“I sold meat to Bishop JB Masinde when he was still living over there in the 90s” Mzee Kamote points to an area about fifty metres away. Bishop Masinde is well know in this area because he is the leader of Deliverance Church Umoja, one of the oldest Pentecostal Churches in Nairobi. I am visiting this butchery together with my brother Msonobari to buy beef fillet, special meat that is usually reserved for special customers like us.

If science has its way, Mzee Kamote may find himself selling a whole different kind of meat one of these days. You see, science is working day and night to grow meat in a lab. You got that right – to grow meat in a lab! And things are advancing rather rapidly.

Growing meat in a lab is actually not as complicated and bizarre as it might appear. It follows the same principle of planting a maize seed and reaping an entire maize plant and maize cob. But in the case of growing meat, meat cells are the ones that are grown under controlled conditions. Scientists refer to this concept of growing cells outside their natural environment as ‘cell culture.’ This is the technology at the heart of the rapidly advancing efforts of shifting meat production from the grazing fields, livestock farms and slaughter houses to the test tube. Interestingly, in 1932, good old Winston Churchill the former British Premier predicted the inevitability of test tube meat when he said that "we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

In August 2017, Bill Gates the longserving richest man in the world (who has since slipped to second position) joined Richard Branson the British billionaire and other investors to invest in Memphis Meat, a biotech start-up that is growing meat in test tubes. This company has already achieved the seemingly impossible fete of growing and harvesting edible chicken, duck and beef not from a noisy farm full of mowing cows and cackling chicken, but from the quiet comfort of their lab.

The fact that Memphis Meat, which was co-founded by Dr. Uma Valeti a cardiologist, has attracted both the attention and money of such globally renowned investors as Bill Gates and Richard Branson shows that they are taking this meat-growing thing very seriously. Richard Branson is so much wedded to this idea of clean, grown meat that he delivered this bold prediction in one of his blog posts, “I believe that in 30 years or so, we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based.”

As for Bill Gates, he once said that, “The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don't really even notice it, so it's part of everyday life.” Going by these words, meat biotech companies like Memphis Meat will have won the battle the day that Mzee Kamote in Nairobi’s Tena estate will be able to stock both lab-grown meat and live-animal meat and people will be unable to tell the difference. In other words, the test tube meat will look and taste just like the meat that we have been devouring for all these centuries.

Before that day comes, many hurdles will present themselves at every step of the way. Even after the successful production and mass production of this test tube meat, navigating the labyrinth of regulations in different countries will be a nightmare. Even more daunting challenges will present themselves in the form of health concerns and deep cultural attachment to live-animal meat that has fed human beings since time immemorial.  

Evangelists and cheerleaders of test tube meat insist that just as humanity moved from hunting wild animals for food to domesticating those animals; just as large swathes of humanity have moved from field grazing of livestock to zero grazing of livestock; just as farmer keep ascending the staircase of seed quality that gives them better and more yield; just as labs keep developing drought resistant seeds, so will meat production ultimately move from farm rearing to lab production.

I saw that eye roll. Am also shaking my head. But the words of my tech-passionate friend Maryam are still ringing in my ears, “if you don’t believe in the promise and power of technology, why don’t you just switch off your laptop forever, fold it, buy a typewriter on ebay and go back to the typing of the seventies?!”

After Maryam told me these words, she switched to Swahili and landed yet another blow in her coastal accent, “umemsahau Louise Brown?!” Have you forgotten Louise Brown?! She was talking about the Louise Brown whose birth on July 25th 1975 made her the first so called test tube baby. This birth was made possible through In vitro fertilization (IVF), a type of assisted reproductive technology (ART) that was pioneered by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. At least five million babies have since been born through IVF. Among them are two Kenyan twin girls who were born on May 8, 2006 right here in Nairobi.

Maryam’s point was that if technology has already gifted us with test tube babies, then the prospect of test tube meat should be celebrated, not shunned or feared. Especially because livestock farming results in more greenhouse gas emission than all forms of transport combined.

I am not aware of any efforts in Kenya to grow test tube meat. But in the first half of 2017, I did visit Nairobi University’s Professor Mulaa and saw the amazing work that he was doing with microbes from Kenya’s soda lakes. Tucked away in his lab at Nairobi University’s Chiromo campus, he works with petri dishes, test tubes, microscopes and all those lab apparatus to perform wonders. One of those wonders is beautiful, sturdy leather that was made from waste fish skin using microorganisms from Lake Bogoria.

Having seen Professor Mulaa’s work which was done in conjunction with the Kenya Industrial Research And Development Institute and other players, its clear to me that those tiny things that can only be seen through microscopes can in fact result in big breakthroughs. Or to use Trumpian talk, those microorganisms can result in bigly and totally terrific breakthroughs like nothing that has ever been seen before. This Trumpian assertion is however not a Trumpian exaggeration bereft of evidence. Wonders happen in labs. Just ask Louise Brown. Or those farmers who now reap more because they planted better seeds that were developed in labs.

Only time will tell whether one of those wonders will be big, juicy, chunky and sizzling pieces of beef and mutton that will roast happily at Kikopey, Kenya’s famous nyama choma (grilled meat) joint along the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway. But even when that sizzling wonder happens, I suspect that I will still be among the people who will insist on the meat that can be found naturally on birds and animals. Sorry Maryam..

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