In the summer of 2013, scientists at Mark Post’s laboratory in Maastricht University in the Netherlands successfully produced the world’s first hamburger made from lab-grown meat, an event that, while likely being disgusting and appalling to some, might have very well revolutionized the food industry and determined how animal matter will be produced for consumption in the future. While it does have a long way to go and will certainly address many challenges, lab-grown meat has the potential to solve many different environmental and societal issues, such as animal rights, climate change, and antibiotic resistance.
The beef created by Dr. Post and his associates came from only several cells that were cultured in a petri dish. By taking relatively few stem cells from the cow’s muscle tissue and culturing them with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals, they created an environment in which the cells could easily develop and multiply, and after three weeks, the initial cells had rapidly divided into more than one million cells. Following this process, the researchers put these many stem cells into smaller dishes, where they coalesced into small pieces of muscle. These pieces of lab-produced meat were then frozen before being crafted into an edible burger patty with the infusion of some spices.
One issue with the consumption of livestock meat, which actually affects almost everything on the planet, is the excessive amount of resources it requires. Just using the water needed to raise animals for consumption as an example, producing one pound of beef requires 1,779 gallons of water, and one pound of pork takes 576. In addition to this, a great deal of food is needed to care for the growth of the animals throughout their lifetimes. Beef especially is very resource consuming, using ten times more than poultry, dairy, eggs, or pork. With a continuously growing human population, and a rising level of consumption of meat throughout the world, it is essential that there be other sources of food to prevent large-scale unsustainable agricultural practices.
The extreme amount of energy that is needed to produce meat for human consumption is also a major polluter of the atmosphere. Many other greenhouse gases derive from simply having more animals. For example, the flatulence of cows is actually a substantial contributor to climate change. Cow flatulence emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, at a rate of nearly 49 million tons per year. Laboratory-grown meat, however, only emits the carbon dioxide that comes from the electricity needed to power the laboratory and manufacture its equipment. Antibiotics are also frequently given to livestock in excessive amounts to prevent disease in the animals, something that has contributed to antibiotic resistance today. Lab-cultured meat would not have this problem, as there is no livestock involved.
By producing meat in a lab, the only actual connection to the animal that it came from is the cell or cluster of cells that were scraped from its body. Ideally, in the future, these cells can be continuously used without taking more from the animals. This will create a meat industry in which no animals are killed or harmed in any way to produce the food that we eat. This is the hope of many vegans who have chosen their diets for animal rights reasons, who believe that, since all animals are sentient beings, it is immoral to eat animals or consume any product from them. Lab meat has the potential to ensure that all animals get to live for purposes other than food, while still getting the nutritional value that many people depend upon for their own survival.
One of the biggest issues related to food made in a petri dish, as you might imagine from the use of high-tech lab equipment, is its price. For many people worldwide, the cost availability of particular foods determines their diet. When it was first released and eaten during a press conference in London, it was revealed that the cost of the single burger patty was $325,000, a ludicrous price for even the wealthiest individuals. However, in mid-2015, it was revealed that the cost of a single burger had dropped drastically to the much more affordable price of between $11 to $80 per kilogram of meat. This value is due to decrease as research continues.
Another concern is taste. If cost is not an issue and an individual shopper can choose between multiple food options, he or she will probably select the option that they feel is the most delicious. Initial response to the burger taste test in the London press conference was not exactly rave, with the main criticism coming from the different texture and lack of fat, but, in a glimmer of hope to its advocates, it was labeled as “almost” like a burger.
In a recent estimate of the lab-grown burger’s availability, Peter Verstrate, the head of the firm handling the project, claimed that it will be on the menu by 2020. If the taste of this meat is perfected and it is marketed to the consumer at an affordable price, it will be interesting to see its impact on the food industry. Will it completely displace food coming from livestock, or will people choose between the two? We will still need dairy products, so it is not reasonable to think that livestock operations will cease entirely. Perhaps the future of the farm industry will work in complement with different laboratories to create the meat that makes up part of the human diet.