If pink slime is any indicator, people really don’t like hyper-processed meat. Still, lean finely textured beef (as ‘pink slime’ is known in the industry) is an example of high-tech processing being put to use to feed the masses. Icky or not, it helps solve the problem of meat being a costly commodity. But with pink slime out, how about something even more high-tech: growing meat from a cellular goo.
In 2000, two Australian-based bioartists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zur, embedded themselves in a Harvard Medical Laboratory, and became the first people to synthesize meat. In 2003, they took it a step further, and served the first and only in-vitro meat dinner of cultured frog cells in Paris. Ever since, about twice a year, there’s a media frenzy around “laboratory cheeseburgers” coming to a plate near you. But these franken-burgers never seem to arrive.
When will lab beef be what's for dinner?
In-vitro meat, also known as cultured meat, synthetic meat, lab-grown meat, or my favorite, vat-grown meat, is meat produced in vitro – outside of the body. Scientists create this meat by cutting out a piece of muscle tissue from a live animal, sterilizing the tissue cells, and growing the tissue inside of a bioreactor filled with a culture medium.
Essentially the scientists are trying to create an environment for the tissue to grow that is as close to the inside of an animal as possible. This culture medium is full of nutrients to help the muscle tissue grow, including Fetal Bovine Serum — which is exactly what it sounds like, a serum made from cow fetus. This small and disgusting ingredient is actually what the whole question of mass market synth-burgers hinges on – this stuff is expensive. So prohibitively expensive, that currently, a single in-vitro beef burger costs over $400,000.
By far the biggest motivator (or at least marketing message) of putting in-vitro meat into commercial production is that it would be a more sustainable method for producing meat. The environmental impact of the global meat industry is immense: It takes up precious land (a quarter of the planet’s land is used for grazing!) and water (8% of world’s water supply goes to cattle industry). The meat industry produces a fraction of the food that could otherwise be made with those resources, and also emits a whole load of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane into the atmosphere.
Could lab meat be a vegan’s dream? Is it even vegan?
Still, the sustainability claims of in-vitro meat are up for debate. As Catts told me, “It’s ludicrous, you still need to translate proteins that came either from bacteria, fungi or plants into animal proteins. You need to use crazy amount of energy in the process of translating those proteins.”
This all makes our meat-heavy lifestyles a serious concern – especially considering that meat consumption is projected to double by 2050. This is mostly due to increases in India and China – as countries develop and cities grow, their inhabitants begin to eat more meat. So we are looking at a future with more humans, less water and land, and more meat.
So how do we cope? Catts points out that the solution is actually quite simple. “If you really have an issue with eating meat, stop eating meat,” he said. Drastic reductions in meat intake would require a lot of social engineering, but pretty much no technology, explained Catts. But changing human behavior (and the market structures that support this behavior) is deemed impossible, and so we turn to a technological solution.
Can we develop one that enables a more efficient, less resource dependent way of obtaining – even, creating – meat? Proponents of in-vitro seem to think so. The proponents of in-vitro meat herald it as the safer, tastier, more ethical meat of the future. One of these is Jason Mathey, founder of New Harvest, an organization dedicated to finding viable meat substitutes. Mathey, a life-long vegetarian, described in-vitro meat production as not only being more ethical, but more efficient and healthy:
"[Animals], they’re living things, they move around, they’re not in the shape that you ultimately see the meat in packages, so you have to turn them into shapes that are suitable for eating," he said. "You could solve all those problems with cultured meat. You could produce meat in the shapes ideal for processing, you could place the facility where you grown the meat by the facility where you process the meat, there isn't the same variability of livestock, no dependency on disease or weather, sterile lab conditions that prevent infection, and much higher quality control with the end product."
So rather than take up social engineering, we take up biological engineering, and attempt to synthesize our steak in-vitro (in-vitro steak, by the way, is still a long way off – scientists have yet to figure out how to build a 3D scaffold for the meat to grow on, or how to include blood vessels). But the ground up bits that make up burgers are in sight, they say, again and again… If they can get it cheap enough.
But what does it taste like? Catts, one of the few people in the world to have actually tasted meat produced in-vitro, explained the experience with a response that’s sure to please the cattle farmers out there. “Texture-wise it was quite disgusting,” he said. “But the sauce was really good.”