Tired of trying to figure out if you need to eat organic grass-fed beef to save the planet? Worried that the only option you’ve got left for reducing your environmental footprint is giving up meat altogether? The next big thing in sustainable food could be the answer to your problems. Say hello to lab grown meat – supporters think it’ll make the burger of the future a viable way to eat (and live) green.
This isn’t some half-cocked scheme that won’t ever make it past the design phase – the first taste test of lab grown meat happened less than a month ago in London. At an early August press conference, Dr. Mark Post, a Maastricht University professor with a specialty in tissue engineering, presented his new burger to the public for the first time. With 200 journalists and academic professionals looking on, burgers made from the new meat were served to a three-person panel of food experts, including Dr. Post.
The verdict? Author Josh Schonwald described the taste as being “somewhere between a Boca Burger and a McDonald’s burger,” and Hanni Rützler, a food scientist, compared it to “meatloaf without any salt and pepper.” That might seem like faint praise, but it’s a big step forward for Dr. Post’s development of lab grown meat, which he calls “cultured beef.”
How Are Researchers Making Lab Grown Meat?
So what exactly is cultured beef? The process starts when researchers collect muscle cells from a live cow, without causing pain. Scientists then care for the cells and enable them to multiply, creating strands of muscle tissue. It takes about 20,000 of these tiny strands of meat to create one standard hamburger patty. Because cultured beef is pure muscle tissue, there’s no fat in Dr. Post’s lab grown meat. This probably accounts for the bland taste, but it also makes these test-tube burgers relatively healthy.
Of course, research like this doesn’t come cheap. The total cost for producing the first cultured beef burger tops $300,000, and almost $1 million has been spent so far to fund the Maastricht University team’s entire operation (which they hope will go far beyond the first burger).
Why Are Researchers Eager to Produce Cultured Beef?
Much of that funding is coming from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who has a net worth of more than $22 billion and a propensity for supporting technological innovation. Brin sees sustainable food as a pressing issue, and he thinks cultured beef is one possible solution for feeding billions of hungry mouths. “There are basically three things that can happen going forward,” says Brin. “One is we will all become vegetarian – I don’t think that is really likely. The second is we ignore the issues, and that leads to continued environmental harm. And the third option is we do something new.”
The possible environmental benefits of lab grown meat include dramatic cuts in water pollution and emissions of the greenhouse gas methane. It could also let us feed people more directly by repurposing the farmland and grain needed to raise healthy cattle. Raising livestock means a lot of indirect energy waste, which only exacerbates food shortages. Lab-made burgers will help conserve resources while still giving shoppers the option to dine on beef.
In an article for The Atlantic, science journalist Marta Zaraska also describes the health benefits we’ll enjoy when we start growing our meat in a lab. Lower fat content is the most obvious benefit, and it might even be possible to add healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, back into the lab grown meat. Other nutrients – vitamin B12, for example – can be added to the laboratory recipe for cultured beef, while those chemical components of meat that increase the risk of heart disease, like L-carnitine, can be engineered out. And deadly salmonella infections, which are typically caused by fecal contamination, could become a thing of the past.
Still, there are no guarantees that cultured beef will be completely safe. Researchers are hoping to produce a closed system for growing meat in vitro, but right now antibiotics are required to keep the muscle cells safe, as they have no innate defenses outside of a host animal. That’s a big no-no for sustainable food fans, and many critics think that the time and resources needed to grow beef in a tube are an extravagance when the simpler option is just eating less meat.
Dr. Post and his team of researchers march on, though. They estimate it’ll take another decade or two of research before cultured beef is ready for the mass market, but they’re confident they’ll get there. Dr. Post even sees a future where sustainable food enthusiasts grow meat in their own kitchens. Will that convenience, coupled with a dramatically reduced environmental footprint, be enough to convince organic living fans to get behind cultured beef? We think it’ll be a tough sell for a generation of green advocates who’ve learned to eat organic fruits and veggies, but stranger things have happened. Just look at veggie pepperoni.
Will you line up to try some cultured beef, or is the idea of meat from a Petri dish a little off-putting? Let us know if you’d be willing to eat lab grown meat to advance sustainable food principles.