Lab-Grown Meat: Your Dinner of the Near Future

Modern technology has made food cheaper, more transportable, pathogen resistant, and even amusing. Still, many manufactured foods contain little nutritional value, and produce markets around the globe continue to become increasingly geographically homogeneous. Food industrialization creates an ongoing slew of ethical dilemmas regarding animal health and wellness. Micro technology may provide solutions once only possible in science fiction; accordingly, recent research suggests that cell culturing may eliminate the need for factory meat farms altogether.

Recent media coverage reveals the ugly truth. Industrial meat production causes harm to the animals and the environment. Animals in factory farms live in unprecedentedly bad conditions. Almost 80% of America’s antibiotics are fed to livestock, largely because of the crowded, unsanitary conditions in which the animals live. Many of these farms allow young cattle dehorning, castrating, and branding without anesthetic. Additionally, industrial meat manufacturing has many negative environmental impacts. According to a Stanford study, the increase in global meat production will mainly “come through industrialized animal production systems.” The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization claims that “livestock sector growth has been a prime force in deforestation . . . overgrazing” and “greenhouse gas concentrations.”

This reality troubles many, yet our technologies may offer a key to safe meat production and consumption. On Monday, August 5, 2013, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was publicly cooked and eaten. This marks a real milestone in food science, one that may affect humanity significantly in coming years. Many have compared both 3D printing technologies and lab-grown meat to Food Replicators and Protein Re-sequencers from Star Trek. Star Trek fans have more reason to rejoice over Maastricht University’s Cultured Beef Project, one that’s been all over the news. Meat culturing has the potential to make human life better and more ethically sound, thereby staying true to the Star Trek-ideal of science.

The Maastricht team, headed by Mark Post, produced the first lab-grown hamburger by culturing tissue. Post’s team safely extracted muscle tissue from the shoulder of a cow. They isolated muscle fiber, a type of cell known as a myocyte, and cultured the cells. Culturing is the process by which biologists nurture and grow cells in controlled conditions. The myocytes then fused back into muscle tissue and grew around a round scaffolding to give the tissue shape, and the Maastricht team electrically stimulated the tissue to make it contract and develop.

The business and scientific communities both seem excited by Maastricht’s results. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin was a huge backer of the Cultured Beef Project. He and the Maastricht team spoke mainly about the practical applications of meat culturing, which they hope will eliminate the need for commercial meat production in factory farms. Post seems optimistic about the prospects of cultured meat to end the mistreatment of livestock. In a press-release interview, he stated his hope that

Twenty years from now, in a supermarket, you would have two products that were identical. One is made from an animal. It now has this label on it that “animals have suffered or been killed to make this product. . . and it is bad for the environment.” And it’s exactly the same as an alternative product made in a lab that tastes that same, has the same quality, has the same price. . . .

Cheap, prevalent cultured meat would also have many environmental benefits. Almost ten percent of greenhouse gases in the U.S. come from agriculture, with livestock as the major culprit. Manure waste releases a lot of methane gas (as does, I’m not joking, cow belching). Methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas exceeds that of CO2 by twenty times. In addition, much of the deforestation of the Amazon is simply in order to grow feed for livestock.

Additionally, meat grown in labs would have great benefits for agriculture and resource conservation. Ken Cook estimates that 1,500 gallons of water go into the production of every pound of beef produced. And that’s a fairly conservative guess. Producing a loaf of bread takes a tenth that much water. Additionally, 70% of arable lands are used to grow feed for livestock. Such land could be reallocated towards feeding the hungry, and farmers could stay in work. So in-vitro meat will have a lot of important impacts.

Experiments with meat culturing currently require a lot of money and resources. Growing meat quickly and inexpensively will be the key to getting it on the market. One challenge involves finding an inexpensive growth medium for the cells. Post told the Daily Mail that certain kinds of meat, like steak, would require a blood vessel-like devise to properly deliver oxygen and nutrients to the cells. Bioreactors also cost a lot of money. The hope is that as with most technologies, the meat culturing process will continue to grow cheaper.

So how does the lab-grown burger taste? Food researcher Hanni Rutzler said, “The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat substitute like soya or whatever.” The journalist Josh Schonwald said that there’s “a leanness to it, but the bite feels like a conventional hamburger.” He concluded that “it wasn’t unpleasant.” Not exactly rave reviews, but a good first step.

Using this process will allow people to eat more exotic meats guilt-free. The ancestors of cows and chickens were both first domesticated 8,000 years ago in Asia, and their popularity today springs partially from their preexisting availability and domesticity. But our ties to history may begin to loosen, allowing us to eat any kind of meat we can grow. Perhaps we’ll see the popularization of cultured tiger meat. Some daring people may adventure to eat cultured human meat or even meat grown from their own cells. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the human-meat relationship. In the near future, many may look forward to eating a lab-grown panda burger.