The people of planet Earth really like meat. By last count, humans consumed 270 million tons of meat per year and that number is expected to double by 2050. Unlike fruits, vegetables, or grains, meat is particularly hard to grow. It’s limitations will make keeping up with global demand impossible. But at an event on August 5, 2013, researchers from the Netherlands unveiled a 5-ounce burger grown in a lab. They believe if they can make growing beef as simple as growing corn, they can save the world from looming peril.
For the last 5 years, Dr. Mark Post, a professor of physiology at Maastricht University, led his team on a mission to grow an edible and tasty synthetic burger. The “cultured beef” patty is made from 20,000 protein strands grown from muscle-specific stem cells harvested from a living cow. At the event, the testers concluded it was definitely edible, but taste wasn’t quite there.
What Post’s synthetic burger lacks is fat. Fat imbues meat with most of its flavor and the cultured beef doesn’t have any. While the test tube beef is biologically identical to the tissue in a traditional burger, Post has been unable to accurately develop synthetic fat. Despite the shortcoming, the $325,000 burger wasn’t considered bad by any means.
Hanni Rützler, an Austrian researcher, and Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based food writer, were selected to be the first to taste the burger at the event in London. “There is quite some intense taste,” said Rützler after taking a bite. She described the flavor as “close to meat” and commented on its “perfect” consistency. Schonwald said the texture and mouthfeel were like conventional burgers but was disappointed by the lack of fat.
But the taste of the burger isn’t as important as the future it promises. On the project’s website, the researchers claim, “Cells taken from one cow could produce 175 million burgers. Modern farming would need 440,000 cows.” By taking stem cells from a living host, putting them in a growth serum, and letting the cells naturally differentiate into muscle tissue, Post has created a world where ethical lab-grown food is possible. But the technology is only half the battle. The $325,000 price tag has to come down before the world’s food shortages can be addressed.
Post believes it will be “10 to 20 years” before you can find synthetic meat on the shelf at the grocery store. The high cost is one factor holding progress back, as well as the limited scale of production. But even people’s feelings about eating engineered meat play a crucial role. Some people have already labeled it the “Frankenburger,” and are skeptical of the “unnatural” process of growing meat. These naysayers seem to overlook that the process is exactly natural (stem cells differentiating into muscle cells), it’s just done in a lab where scientists control the situation.
Because the process is natural, Post’s burger isn’t truly synthetic either. The technique of growing meat from myosatellite cells requires genetic tissue from animals. Even though they might be able to make 175 million burgers from one cow, they still need that one cow to get the process going.
“It’s really just a proof of concept now,” says Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder who is financing the entire endeavor. “From there, I’m optimistic we can really scale by leaps and bounds.”
Post imagines a supermarket in 2030 where those leaps and bounds would be evident. “You’d have the choice between two products that are identical,” says Post. “One is made in an animal, it has a label that says animals have suffered or been killed to make this product, and it has an eco-tax because it’s bad for the environment. And it’s exactly the same as an alternative being made in a lab. It has the same taste, it has the same quality, it’s the same price or maybe even cheaper. So, what are you going to choose?”