How do you grow meat in a lab?


How Soon Will Synthetic Meat Ever Replace Big Macs?

Not right away, probably. For one thing, producing synthetic meat initially is going to be really expensive -- Post's fake hamburger, which he's hoping to get a celebrity chef to cook, will cost about £200,000 or U.S. $320,000 to produce. (You could buy 89,635 Big Macs -- which go for $3.57 apiece as of late 2012 -- for that much money.) Of course, as researchers refine the process, they're hoping to drive the cost down quite a bit [source: Ghosh].

Test-tube burgers would have a lot of advantages over the real stuff. For one thing, fake meat wouldn't eat up our resources the way that cows do. According to EarthSave, an environmental organization, growing a pound (about half a kilogram) of beef necessitates the use of 2,500 gallons (9,464 liters) of water, 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) of grain, 35 pounds (15.8 kilograms) of topsoil and the energy equivalent of 1 gallon (4 liters) of gasoline. And with some experts estimating that food production will have to double within the next 40 years to keep up with expanding populations in developing countries, it's going to be tough to find enough pastureland, grain and water to feed the number of cows we would need for meat. "Anything that stops more wild land being converted to agricultural land is a good thing," University of British Columbia professor food ecologist Sean Smukler said in a 2012 BBC News interview. "We're already reaching a critical point in the availability of land" [source: Ghosh].

Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization that has been working since the mid-2000s to promote its development, said in a 2008 interview that synthetic meat would have health advantages as well. It would be easier to control and eliminate food-based pathogens in laboratory meat, and fat content could be systematically controlled, making it healthier to eat [source: Kiger].

That is, assuming that synthetic meat ranchers can get people to eat the stuff. Modern Meadow, the Missouri-based startup that hopes to become the first manufacturer of synthetic meat, concedes that convincing consumers that fake flesh is okay may be a bit of a challenge. "We expect it will first appeal to culinary early-adopted consumers, and the segment of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons," the company wrote in a 2012 proposal for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. "With reduction in price, it can reach the masses with religious restrictions on meat consumption (people restricted to Hindu, Kosher, Halal diets) and finally populations with limited access to safe meat production" [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].

Author's Note: How do you grow meat in a lab?

My father was a grocery store owner and a butcher, so I grew up around meat of all kinds. We ate steaks and hamburgers probably several times a week, in addition to pastrami, stews, bacon, sausage, and plenty of a strange, oily processed meat product called chipped ham, for which people in my hometown of Pittsburgh had a peculiar craving. But after I grew up and reached middle age, I mysteriously lost my desire to eat meat. I think some of it has to do with being the owner of three dogs, and realizing that it felt strange to eat some animals and play fetch with others. Today, I subsist on rice and beans, cashew butter, fresh and cooked vegetables, oatmeal and raw salads and fruit, a small amount of cheese and eggs, and an occasional serving of farm-raised tilapia. Maybe I'm a mammal supremacist, but I don't get quite as misty-eyed about fish. The idea of synthetic meat intrigues me, though I'm not sure if I'd actually eat it, even if it was available. I've gotten so accustomed to my plant-based diet that I'm not sure that meat would taste good to me at this point.

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Sources

  • Churchill, Winston. "Fifty Years Hence." Strand Magazine. December 1931. (October 19, 2012) http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1914
  • EarthSave. "Food Choices." Earthsave.org. Undated. (October 19, 2012) http://www.earthsave.org/environment.htm
  • Gayle, Damien. "Artificial meat grown in a lab could become a reality THIS year." Daily Mail. January 17, 2012. (October 19, 2012 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2087837/Test-tube-meat-reality-year-scientists-work-make-profitable.html#ixzz29nUMoqHA
  • Ghosh, Pallab. "Lab-Grown Meat is First Step to Artificial Hamburger." BBC News. February 19, 2012. (October 19. 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16972761
  • In Vitro Meat Consortium. "Preliminary Economics Study." Invitromeat.org. March 2008. (October 19, 2012) http://invitromeat.org/images/Papers/invitro%20meat%20economics%20study%20v5%20%20march%2008.pdf
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  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "PETA Offers $1 Million Reward to First to Make In Vitro Meat." Undated. (October 19, 2012) http://www.peta.org/features/In-Vitro-Meat-Contest.aspx
  • Sample, Ian. "Fish Fillets Grow in Tank." New Scientist. March 20, 2002. (October 19, 2012) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2066
  • Timmer, John. "Lab-Grown Meats Face Long Road to Supermarket." Wired.com. November 15, 2011. (October 19, 2012). http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/artificial-meat-economics/
  • Winter, Michael. "Meat grown in lab may yield first 'test-tube burger' by fall." USA Today. February 20, 2012. (October 19, 2012) http://content.usatoday.com/communities/ondeadline/post/2012/02/meat-grown-in-lab-may-yield-first-test-tube-burger-by-fall/1#.UIHOFMU0V8F
  • Wired UK. "PayPal Founder Backs Synthetic Meat Printing Company." Wired.com. August 16, 2012. (October 19, 2012) http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/3d-printed-meat/

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