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

About Adam Lee

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

  • L.Long

    I do like the vegan subs for meat. But I also like Meat! All kinds. But I cant eat meat anymore, got Hemochromatosis so no red meats especially venison (my favorite-Bambi’s mom-Smokey-Bullwinkle….Yummy).
    So the one thing I did not read on this and other news items was what is the elemental/nutritional make up of this meat?

    Since knowing I have this genetic problem, with no cure, and must always watch my iron intake, I am an avid label reader. So can this meat be tailored to specific medical problems, that would be a great thing too!!! besides all the environmental POSSIBLE benefits.

    As far as the waste products from pigs & chickens causing pollution problems this is not so much from the animals as lazy farmers not fully utilizing the resources.
    Schite and dead animals can be ground, and fermented into methane fuel for vehicles. Cow pies can be processed into planters and other garden products, which made a million dollar business for a farmer in NJ.

    But with the ORGANIC movement in place, I doubt this ‘lab grown meat’ will go that far quickly. Look at the promise of gamma ray serialization? It went no where because of the stupid sheeple and their ‘ AAHHAAAHHHaaa radiation in our food!!!’ & “Our FOOD IS RADIOACTIVE!!!!” nonsense. Just think how they will spin the ‘They are using STEM CELLS!!! think of the abortions!!!’ or “It will cause more Autism!!!” or ‘Those evil scientists!!!’ Its not so much a pessimism as a deep understanding in the awesome power of purified human stupidity, never underestimate it’s awesome power to throw a ton of schite into the giant fan!

    If the iron level can be kept low, I’ll eat it!!!!!

  • Azkyroth

    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?

    Before or after it runs for office in Texas?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I thought they treated hemochromatosis with good old-fashioned bloodletting!

    I don’t know about the iron content of lab-grown meat. I know this burger was pure muscle tissue, no fat at all (because they only grew it with muscle stem cells, not fat stem cells). They’re working on tweaking that. I assume they can probably alter it in other ways as well.

    As far as the manure lagoons, some is used as fertilizer, but I think the problem is that there’s just too much of it. I’ve read that a single large industrial hog factory can produce as much sewage as a major city. Using it as fuel for a biodigester power plant is a good thought, though.

  • L.Long

    Yes I visit the local vampire let it drain off a bag of blood every 2 weeks. But I can’t eat high iron food which eliminates most process foods as they put loads of iron in it, also red meat contains high levels of iron with venison having huge amounts.

  • Loren Petrich

    Seems like a lot of effort with not much gained. I say that because there is an already existing “vat food” in commercial production: Quorn. It is made from a soil fungus, Fusarium venenatum, grown in vats. Like many fungi, this fungus only needs to eat glucose and various minerals, unlike artificial-meat tissue, which needs a complete set of amino acids, vitamins, etc.

    The tissue used in recent experiments was fed from fetal bovine serum, which is obviously impractical for large-scale production. So it would be necessary to digest grains and soybeans and the like. Or even vat-grown fungi.

  • Group of self-conscious cells

    Cell divide best and faster in space, I bet the hamburger can be made on half that time in space.

  • islandbrewer

    This reminds me of the futurist graphic novel Transmetropolitan, where people dine on vat grown panda sweetbreads and and thylacine livers from cheap takeouts. That took place in a future that had solved its energy scarcity problems.

  • L.Long

    Thanks for your post. Never heard of Quorn. And a quick google shows why….Fungus Food….sounds yummy. And this is an excellent example of why many foods don’t make it in the USA…we are collectively a bunch of psychotic prudes!!! about so many things.
    They can barely tolerate rotten cabbage.
    Insects? you mean like cockroaches??? No Way!
    Fungus? Like what grows on the bath wall?? No Way??
    Lab Beef? Made of FETAL tissue!!! NO WAY!!!!

    But Quorn has 0% iron!!! Great!!! Will be looking into that! Thanks!

  • L.Long

    No it isn’t. Tissue is not human, unless you are in Texas(& a few other places) and in a woman’s uterus.

  • L.Long

    And the cost of a factory put in space? cost of getting the materials needed into the factory? Cost of getting the product back to earth? Yes may grow faster at 10 times the cost.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I’ve read that launching a ship into orbit is so expensive, if there were bars of pure gold floating around up there, it wouldn’t pay to go get it. I agree that we’re not going to see orbital factory farms any time soon.

  • Deirdre Faust

    “…would that count as cannibalism?”

    …human tissue, grown from human genetic material, eaten by a human. How could that possibly not be cannibalism? You’re not eating a person, mind you… though I suppose a corpse isn’t a person, either… look, yes, it’s totally cannibalism. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Hee hee. I anticipated this question stirring more debate than it did. :)

    I’m not about to try it myself, but I suppose someone could argue that it’s not cannibalism if the tissue was never part of a living human…

  • Deirdre Faust

    But it was grown from human stem cells. Where, pray tell, did those come from?

    I’m not saying it would be immoral to eat it – that’s actually an open question in my book – but those new tissues were cultured from tissues which came from a living human being. Even if they were test-tube grown from sperm & egg, it’s still genetically human tissue, and therefore cannibalism. For me, the important thing is that while it wouldn’t have all the bioaccumulation of a “real person”, it would still carry all the other health risks of eating human tissue.

  • Bdole

    Oh gawd, this sounds like a different “debate.”

    It’s human if its cells are human!

    It’s not human because it never attained human-sentience!





    Are you Pro-Chews?

  • Deirdre Faust

    I don’t think it’s “debate” so much as “clarification”, and it really comes down to how you parse your definitions. For me, humanity is simply a matter of biological pedigree; personhood is something far more complex and nebulous.

    So, for example, you could have a human person (you or me), a human non-person (a human’s corpse, or parts of me that fall off for whatever reason), a non-human non-person (sticks & rocks & bugs & stuff), and a non-human person (sentient life on other planets, or hypothetical “uplifted” species here on Earth).

    As for cannibalism, it’s the eating of conspecific tissue. Taxonomic boondoggles aside, it doesn’t matter what mechanism was used to grow the tissue, only where the tissue came from – if it’s human-derived, then it’s human tissue, and thus cannibalism for any other human to eat it. The ethics are a whole ‘nother rabbit hole entirely, but one’s ethical commitments are likely to carry over in a pretty unambiguous and obvious way (consequentialists will appeal to outcomes, deontologists will appeal to rules, etc.).

    Of course, if you work with different definitions, it’ll come out different (depending on how you cut up humanity, personhood, and cannibalism). I simply happen to not have come across another set of definitions that doesn’t open itself to obvious problems only amenable to “you know what I mean” conversation-stoppers. Of course I don’t know what you mean, that’s why I’m picking at the edges of it!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    As for cannibalism, it’s the eating of conspecific tissue.

    I like that! That’s a good definition, so I concede the point.