Weekend Coffee: The Promise of In Vitro Meat

Earlier this month, the first ever lab-grown hamburger was eaten at a taste test in London. The tasters’ reports were guardedly positive:

Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft… there is quite some intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.

“This is meat to me. It’s not falling apart.”

Food writer Mr Schonwald said: “The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there’s a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.”

The lab-grown burger was created by scientists at the University of Maastricht. They took stem cells from cow muscle tissue and bathed in a nutrient serum to induce them to divide, turning into tiny strips of muscle that were painstakingly collected and frozen until they had enough of them. Over 20,000 of these strips were combined into a five-ounce burger.

Since just the one patty took two years and cost $325,000 to make, this isn’t something you’re going to see in the supermarket tomorrow. But as a proof of what’s possible, it has tremendous promise.

The farming of livestock is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas (and that’s not even mentioning another byproduct of industrial-scale factory farming: the huge manure lagoons that pose a risk of disease, groundwater contamination, fish kills, even explosions). As the world industrializes and people in developing countries start eating more like people in the West, we either have to persuade humanity to voluntarily eat less meat, or else find a way to satisfy the demand that won’t cause even worse climate damage than we’ve already locked in.

In vitro meat could be a way to do that. Even though it’s more expensive at the moment, in principle it should be possible to produce it much more cheaply and with less emissions than regular meat. This is true just for basic reasons of thermodynamics: 100% of the energy inputs go toward producing edible protein, while none is wasted growing bones, skin, organs, or other parts that end up not being used, or creating toxic manure.

And there are advantages on the ethical side as well. A strip of cultured tissue in a petri dish, with no brain that can feel pain or suffer, ought to satisfy even the most stringent ethical objections to killing animals for food (as is shown by the fact that PETA is funding in vitro meat research). Granted, this part isn’t perfect – right now, the technique still needs a supply of fetal calf serum to nourish the growing stem cells. But it’s not a great leap to predict that we’ll soon have ways of creating meat that are 100% animal-free.

Plus, since it doesn’t require the killing of animals, this method could in theory be used just as easily to culture the meat of endangered or even extinct species, creatures that would be unethical or impossible to raise for slaughter – something that ought to appeal to the more adventurous gastronauts among us. (Penguin burgers, anyone? On the squick side: if this technique were used to create a steak out of human muscle tissue, as I’m sure someone eventually will, would that count as cannibalism?)

I’m not strictly vegetarian or vegan myself, but for the most part I’ve cut meat out of my regular diet, and I usually only eat it on special occasions or when I can be sure it’s from sustainable and humane sources. That probably wouldn’t change even if lab-grown meat became common and affordable. But for the world as a whole, it will be a huge boon, and we’ll see it become a reality within our lifetimes.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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