TORONTO -- A new type of lab-grown meat cultivated from animal cells can replicate slabs of meat, allowing for more complex textures and flavours which could eventually pave the way for more environmentally sustainable meat production, scientists say.

Two researchers at McMaster University developed a new technique that can also control the amount of fat and muscle content the meat contains, they recently announced in a paper published in the journal Cells Tissues Organs.

“What we did was grow meat ourselves in the form of sheets, and then [we] assembled these sheets into larger three-dimensional constructs, which are like slab meat, rather than ground meat that you see in the market,” Ravi Selvaganapathy, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at McMaster and a Canada Research Chair in biomicrofluidics, told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

“The biggest challenge that has always been in this area of tissue engineering has been in growing three-dimensional tissues.”

Until now, scientists have been able to grow chunks of meat that become fibrous when they are cooked, but their consistency is more like ground meat, Selvaganapathy explained.

“What we have done at McMaster is to look at technologies that will allow us to grow slab or steak-type meat where you have the muscle fibres  -- actually cells that connect to each other and fat cells integrated into it and that produce fat -- very similar to what happens in natural muscles.”

The researchers took fast-growing animal cells from biopsies -- no animals are sacrificed, Selvaganapathy said -- and co-cultured the muscle and fat cells in two-dimensional “sheets” and assembled the layers. The cells grow much like what happens when a person exercises, he added: the stimulus to the muscles prompts the growth of more muscle fibres.

Selvaganapathy and his colleague, Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi, have started a company and hope that with the right investments, they will be able to commercialize the technology and have a “premium” product out in two years or so.

“Much like what you see with milk, where you can get skimmed milk, one per cent, two per cent, whole milk and so on, what we have, is the ability to ‘tune’ the muscle and fat content so that you reliably know the content of the meat you are consuming,” he said.

Global meat production has tripled over the last 50 years, according to Our World in Data, with production at around 340 million tonnes in 2018. That fell moderately in 2019 and was projected to decline another 1.7 per cent in 2020, according to a United Nations Food Outlook report, due in large part to the fall in pig meat production as a result of disease, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, the environmental impact of meat production remains enormous, with more than 75 per cent of total agricultural land used for livestock, roughly 60 percent of which is for cows alone. In addition, the water required for livestock is immense. A quarter pounder hamburger for example, uses roughly 460 gallons of water, or about 1,750 litres per 113 grams, according to the Water Footprint Network and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“As meat consumption continues to increase, this becomes an unsustainable way of producing meat,” said Selvaganapahy.

“We want to make this into a more efficient process so that a greater percentage of the resources input goes into actual meat production.”