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Nobody is happy about the meat industry. It’s cruel, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly. Producing a one-pound burger requires about thirteen pounds of grain, which carries a huge carbon footprint. It also requires raising and killing about one five-hundredth of a cow in squalid conditions, and costs a lot more than the same nutritional value in chickpeas or eggs.

If nobody ate meat, the cost of grain would fall, making it easier for the poor to survive. It would also decrease CO2 production and make the world a lot kinder and fluffier. Which would be all well and good, except that meat is delicious and nobody is giving it up without a fight. So — what do we do about this dilemma?

slaughterhouse

The UN, in its own inimitable style, has proposed that the first world eat efficient, eco-friendly insects. Some countries around the world use mealworms, crickets, flies, and beetles as dietary staples. This plan suffers from a lack of realism.

Insects’ bulky exoskeletons give them an unpleasant chitinous texture that’s alien to Western palettes. Expecting the dietary habits of whole continents to suddenly shift to an unpleasant and alien foodstuff for abstract environmental reasons is ridiculous. If environmentalists can’t sell people on the merits of vegetarianism, I’m not sure why they expect cockroaches to be an easier sell.

Insect

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The Meat* Revolution

Luckily, there’s is a more practical solution to the problem in the works, in the form of an emerging technology Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day. Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years. Read More based on tissue cloning. The technology is going to be cheap, green, and you won’t have to eat any mealworms. It’s called “lab grown meat” and it allows for the creation of animal muscle tissue in an eco-friendly and cruelty-free fashion.  The technology is similar to that being developed to create artificial organs How 3D Printing Humans Might Be Possible Some Day How 3D Printing Humans Might Be Possible Some Day How does bioprinting work? What can be printed? And will be ever be able to print a full human being? Read More . The project to develop the meat is being bankrolled by Google founder Sergey Brin to the tune of millions of dollars.

Here’s an excellent rundown of the technology as of two years ago:

About a year later, the first lab-grown hamburger (which cost a little less than $350,000), was created over a period of three months, and fed to some professional food tasters. The tasters declared that the burgers tasted and felt like meat, if a little dry. The dryness was due to the lack of fat cells in the meat, which are more complex to culture than conventional muscle cells. The high cost was because the meat has to be cultured in small fibers to ensure that oxygen and nutrition can reach them.

The first burger was a proof of concept, and one with a lot of caveats: the meat was expensive, and the lack of fat limited its flavor and nutrition. However, since then, there’s been rapid progress. The head of the project, Mark Post, now estimates that the meat can be produced for about $80 per kilogram, or $36.00 per pound. If you do the math, that means that a quarter-pounder burger patty, using the lab-grown beef, would cost about $9.00. That’s still almost ten times more expensive than traditional beef, but it’s also a huge leap compared to that first burger.

There’s also a lot of possible improvements on the horizon. Techniques have already been developed to create artificial veins in synthetic organs. The same technology could be used to grow larger (and more structured) pieces of meat, which would reduce the cost and complexity of making lab-grown beef in quantity.

hamburger

It’s also worth noting that the current process is far from mass-production. Large-scale fabrication would also allow manufacturers to exploit economies of scale to bring prices down much further. In the long run, because so much less raw material is required, it should be possible to create meat that is quite a bit cheaper than the natural variety. Dr. Post recently gave a talk to a Cattleman’s Association in Australia, in which he warned them that their business model could be disrupted 5 Disruptive Technology Breakthroughs That Will Shock The World 5 Disruptive Technology Breakthroughs That Will Shock The World Disruptive technologies, like the Internet, industrial agriculture, and aeronautics, have profoundly shaped the world and our daily lives. Here are five technologies that are on the cusp of having a disruptive impact in coming years. Read More by lab-grown meat in the near future.

“I do think that in 20, 30 years from now we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef. […] I think we seriously need to consider that this is going to be an alternative. […] Even if I am not going to do it, others will do it at some point. It is just too obvious a possibility.” 

In the near term, Post’s focus is on solving basic technical problems with lab-grown meat: learning to culture fat tissue, improving yield, and eliminating the animal by-products that he’s using to culture the cells, replacing them with synthetic and plant-based alternatives. He believes this work can be completed in the next few years. From there, the technology can begin to leverage 3D printing technology 5 Amazing 3D Printing Applications You Have to See to Believe 5 Amazing 3D Printing Applications You Have to See to Believe What would you do with a 3D printer? If the people developing these applications have anything to say about it, you might be surprised. Read More to create more structured meats (like steak), and to other kinds of meat (including fish, chicken, and turkey).

Will People Eat It?

Some people are freaked out by the idea of lab-grown meat. This is a hard perspective for me to understand. I grew up on a farm, and I barely get through the day by ignoring what I know about where food comes from. If I know for sure that my burger was produced in a sterile vat with absolutely no screaming, it would be a huge load off my mind. Growing stem cells in bioreactor using plant protein seems like a less squicky option than keeping a cow standing in feces in a concrete closet.

Maybe it’s a question of marketing. “Lab grown meat” hits some pretty scary buttons for many Americans. Perhaps “zero-cruelty beef” would go over better. Or maybe it’s better not to talk about it at all — disclose whatever minimum amount of information that the FDA decides is necessary and let cost-competition drive adoption.

Regardless, I hope these issues can be settled before the technology hits the market. If this technology can reach the mass market, it would help a lot of people. Ethical vegetarians can eat meat guilt-free — PETA has a one million dollar prize for the first company to develop inexpensive lab-grown chicken. Conservative Jews and Muslims can eat cloned bacon without worry. When the cost falls far enough, poor people who rely on cheap-but-unhealthy carb-heavy diets will have more affordable access to meat, helping to reduce both malnutrition and the obesity crisis.

What do you think? Are you up for eating some cultured beef? Let me know in the comments!

Image Credit: Petri dish Via Shutterstock, “Hamburger“, by Wikimedia, “Insect Food Stall,” by Wikimedia, “Chicken Farm,” by Wikimedia

  1. magnus
    April 23, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Quite frankly, I'm sick to death of people's fears and other BS standing in the way of progress. Once this process is cheap and proven that there are no negative side effects from it then government needs to outlaw the raising of meat animals for food. Yes I am serious.

    The costs of industrial farming over all is absolutely insane. Without the massive subsidies food costs would be far beyond what a significant number of people could afford comfortably.

    Simply put; the ethical, moral, economic, and environmental costs of raising food animals is pretty much beyond a rational society to continue as soon as there is a viable alternative. This is that viable alternative once it matures to commercial status.

    Lot of people are gonna hate me for saying this but the bottom line is this: Are we going to allow the irrational and fearful run this world or are we going to move forward with rational solutions to the problems that humanity face.

    People wanna take concern with electric cars because of coal power plants? I have to ask the real question here.....WHY are we still using coal for the production of electricity? For that matter...why are we still using Uranium for the production of electricity?

    Thorium, solar, wind, and tidal power is 1000's more energy than we as a species need to not only survive but to thrive. And as a nuclear replacement, you can't get any better than Thorium because its safe, abundant, and CANNOT melt down and cause another accident like the two clusterfu*k's we have had in the last century with nuclear based energy. It literally CANNOT meltdown....end of story.

    And yet...we are still not using Thorium although there are dozens of ready to build plans for such reactors. A good question to ask would be WHY? I've never been able to get a straight answer for that question and had more than a couple people tell me that the reactors don't work.....well that is BULLSH*T because there are several working as power production facilities around the world right now.

    We have huge solar companies doing their best to deploy decentralized solar energy solutions and huge traditional energy production companies spending tens of millions on lobbying politicians to "protect" their business model from the "evil" evil solar ccompanies.

    MORE BULLSH*T!

    This is a huge reason why a growing majority of people in America have no use for or trust of government.....they are only responsive to someone with money in their hand and have forgotten that their job is one of service.....not of inherit worthiness.

    Fear, ignorance, and religion are costing our species much more in terms of progress, wealth, and happiness than all the terrorist groups of the last 1000 years have even begun to.

    Get over it, shoot whoever you have to shoot, and lets move on.

  2. Norman
    April 18, 2015 at 6:05 am

    All food is modified unless you are a hunter gatherer. We have been selectively breeding and splicing for at least 6 thousand years to create animals and plants that suit our needs better than what 'nature' has to offer.

    GMO is just a faster and more accurate way of doing this. There are no health risks, only stupid people who don't understand how DNA works and who subscribe to the idea of the fallacy of nature.

    When you consider we already produce crops that require less water, less pesticides and produce higher yields...all of which have huge positive environmental impacts why would anyone stand in the way of that? We simply cannot return to 18th century farming techniques unless 3 billion people are going to volunteer to kill themselves.

    It's quite racist and arrogant of people in the West, where we have an abundance of food to tell people who don't have the farming know how we do that they must eat 'organic'.

    I am sure for those with money there will always be 'natural' meat and veg for them to waste their wealth on. What worries me is that they will try to force their ideas on everyone else. Greenpeace have done this, telling poor African countries not to accept GM grains that would help solve their food problems because it's 'poison'. They don't seem to want to look after all their hungry children though as they go about their comfortable western lives.

    This technology could reduce the amount of land humans need for farming substantially, creating huge nature reserves in all countries our grandchildren can enjoy. It will reduce animal cruelty to near zero, create opportunities to tailor the nutrients in meat to suit us better and will reduce the need for massive amounts of water and pesticides.

    We could literally save the planet by adopting this. Once everyone is well fed we're going to find it easier to talk about recycling, having fewer children and other issues which will promote sustainability.

  3. Logan
    April 17, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    The article mentions in detail what it supposes are threats to the environment due to raising of cows (flatulence, etc.). It does not parse out such requirements for the simulated meat side of the equation. The materials must come from somewhere. What feeds these materials. How much electricity and water is used to produce this simulated meat? Everyone touts how environmentally friendly electric cars are because they do not use gasoline... until they realize how much coal is burned to create the electricity to charge them. ;)

    • Andre Infante
      April 18, 2015 at 4:35 am

      The meat can be fed on plant matter with fairly high efficiency. Unlike a cow, you don't have to siphon off nutrients to maintain organs and fuel the brain and so forth - you can dedicate all of the raw material to making just muscle. It'll still be less efficient than just eating soy, but it'll probably beat regular meat by a big margin. How big depends on the exact industrial processes used, which scientists are still figuring out.

      As for electric cars, you still get big wins in efficiency compared to traditional gas engines. It's easier to make centralized infrastructure efficient, and more and more of our energy comes from relatively green sources like natural gas and nuclear.

  4. Gavin
    April 17, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Nowadays, anything can kill you. Whether it's grown or modified in a lab or the natural product, they all have negative affects on your health. If any food product that is lab grown tastes and looks like the real thing, I'd be happy to try it.

  5. A41202813GMAIL
    April 17, 2015 at 6:10 am

    I Am 58.

    As Someone Who, By Insufficient Information, Lost Important Health Quality Permanently, Due To Lack Of Some Nutrients ( Not Hunger, By Any Means ), I Say, If You Want To Trust The big pharma Companies ( And All Their Sordid Counterparts ), Be My Guest.

    I Will Eat The Most Natural Food Products I Can Afford, Period.

    • Rich
      April 17, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      What's With The Mad Capitalisation Dude?

    • A41202813GMAIL
      April 19, 2015 at 3:41 am

      It Is Just The Output Of A CHROME Extension.

      Sorry For The Inconvenience.

  6. Jessica C
    April 17, 2015 at 5:13 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head with marketing. 'Lab-grown' triggers thoughts of mad science at worst, or a clinical unwholesome environment at best. 'Zero-cruelty', or 'cruelty-free' speaks to the benefit this new development offers.

    Just like how we aim to put the benefits front-and-centre for every tool we feature at MUO.

  7.        
    April 17, 2015 at 4:43 am

    It sounds like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009).
    Flint Lockwood is at work!

    • Michael Dowling
      April 17, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      I've tried veggie hot dogs and burgers,and they aren't too bad,especially when you add the mustard and relish.

  8. Alan Ortega
    April 17, 2015 at 2:03 am

    Dammit just Go Vegan y´all.

    • Andre Infante
      April 17, 2015 at 2:12 am

      I would, except that I can taste things and also would like to not die of obscure nutritional deficiencies.

  9. dragonmouth
    April 16, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    You expect me to give up Kobe beef hamburgers for ones made out of pink slime that came out of a test tube?!

  10. S
    April 16, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    This definitely needs to happen!! I fully support it.

  11. Scutterman
    April 16, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    "Or maybe it’s better not to talk about it at all — disclose whatever minimum amount of information that the FDA decides is necessary and let cost-competition drive adoption."

    I think that this would be a very unwise marketing strategy. Mis-information thrives in situations like this, and consumers don't like information withheld from them because they assume (usually correctly) that there is a nefarious motive behind it. It's much better to be completely honest, but introduce it as a high-ticket delicacy. Once it becomes familiar, then you can slowly bring it to the masses over the years.

    Oh, and I'm also slightly concerned about potential long-term health issues, but that's never stopped me from eating any of the currently produced chemical-filled mass-marketed crap that makes up a surprising amount of my diet, so I would be willing to take a risk on artificial meat.

    • dragonmouth
      April 16, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      Don't be naive. The point of any marketing strategy is to bend, spindle and mutilate the facts to make the product seem better than it actually is. IOW, to mis-inform the target audience.

    • Scutterman
      April 17, 2015 at 10:32 am

      Yes, that's very true. However, you're forgetting that an emerging market is much more vulnerable than an established product. If the consumers decide that they have been lied to, even if it is a lie by omission, the resulting bad PR could well cause the product to become unprofitable. First impressions stick with a brand for its whole lifetime.

  12. Steve
    April 16, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    We currently hear complaining in droves about health risks associated with GMOs. If any of these claims have validity to them, I don't see how it is possible to grow meat without similar risks. Doubless someone will ask whether I am aware of the risks of eating natural meat, to which I would reply yes-- which is partially the point. Health concerns related to lab grown meat are largely unknown at this point.

    • Andre Infante
      April 16, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Those claims do not have any validity. The science is clear: GMOs are not more dangerous, on average, than their natural counterparts. The (very few) studies purporting to show otherwise have already been thoroughly discredited.

  13. Jason
    April 16, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    I would have no issue eating it as long as it was economical, safe, and brought the same flavor as natural meet.

    • Jason
      April 16, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      Meat too. Google spell check got me.

  14. B.O.B.
    April 16, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    "Luckily" is correct. I do hope to be eating cultured meat, which is not synthetic, but actual animal cells that have been grown outside of the animal. I see no reasonable objection.

  15. AriesWarlock
    April 16, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    "Luckily"

    Unluckily, you mean. I am not eating synthetic meat.

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