What’s the Beef?
Lab-grown meat could resolve the environmental and ethical problems of industrial agriculture. But will anyone eat it?
Mark Post had a slight grin on his face as he prepared to reveal the contents of the stainless steel food container in his hands. In front of him were a phalanx of photographers, cameras, and scribblers – an audience of more than 200 reporters from media outlets around the globe. The journalists gathered at the London auditorium were eagerly waiting to see – and perhaps even taste – the world’s most expensive hamburger.
This, however, was not haute cuisine. Post, a vascular physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was about to reveal some of the world’s first synthetic meat: a conglomeration of artificially cultivated protein engineered to have the look and taste of ground beef. The burger in Post’s hands was, in fact, meat. But it hadn’t come from an animal. It was created in a lab.
illustration Lilli Keinaenen
The media’s enthusiasm was fueled by equal parts garish curiosity and idealistic promise. The development of lab-grown meat has the potential, Post and others believe, to revolutionize what we eat. Synthetic meat offers the tantalizing prospect of reducing the environmental impacts of meat production. Lab-grown meat could also eliminate the horrific animal suffering embedded in our industrial agriculture system. And, more to the point, it could give confirmed carnivores a way to maintain their appetite for flesh while avoiding meat’s ethical and environmental dilemmas.
Post was promising that you could have your eco-friendly steak, and eat it, too. This was meat without the murder.
“Twenty years from now,” Post told the assembled reporters, “if you enter a supermarket you will have a choice between two identical-looking products. One will have a label that says it has been produced with a lower environmental footprint, the other will have a smoking-type label that says animals have suffered or been killed to produce this meat.”
Post opened the container to reveal a small pinkish mesh of muscle tissue in a petri dish. The click of the cameras was punctuated by a few bursts of laughter from the audience. The sample looked pretty measly; there wouldn’t be much to share around. A few people murmured with surprise as the chef on stage grilled the five-ounce patty in butter, a choice that seemed incongruous given the aspirations of the whole endeavor.
The guest tasters were more forgiving, if not exactly effusive. “I was expecting the texture to be more soft,” food scientist Hanni Ruetzler said after nibbling on the patty. “It’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy.” Her final verdict: “crunchy and hot” and “a bit like cake.”
The “cruelty-free” burger might have passed its first taste-test, but whether it will ever be able to compete with traditional meat is uncertain. While the science of lab-grown meat is advancing, the technological hurdles to commercialization are immense. Environmentalists are split on the wisdom of the effort, with some arguing that it’s a distraction from getting people to just shift their eating habits to a more plant-based diet. And the cost remains prohibitive. With a price tag of $330,000 for that single patty (bun and sauce not included), it’s going to be a long while before Post’s burger is sold at your local supermarket.
Post’s burger wasn’t the first synthetic meat to be exhibited in public before, only the most mediagenic. Post belongs to a small group of researchers in the US and Europe – spurred in part by animal rights groups – who are racing to bring lab-grown meat to market.
The science behind lab-grown meat developed out of the stem cell research that began to mature in the 1990s, promising of a new era of regenerative medicine to treat injury and disease in humans. The first breakthrough demonstration of lab-meat technology was financed by NASA. In 2002, the space agency funded a group of scientists who went on to successfully grow goldfish muscle cells, which, they said, “resemble fresh fish filets,” although they were never tasted in public. After its initial burst of interest in alternative sources of protein to feed astronauts, NASA dropped its funding for the idea. But around the same time, a group of Harvard University tissue engineers served up muscle tissue grown from frog cells at an art exhibition in Nantes, France. The exhibition guests didn’t enjoy the taste of their lab-grown frog meat, but the interest in synthetic meat continued to build.
The origins of Post’s burger occurred in 2005, when researcher Willem van Eelen convinced the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture to give him two million euros to investigate the potential of synthetic meat. Van Eelen’s project produced some small pieces of meat, made from the muscle stem cells of mice. Then, in 2008, Post spun off his own project, convinced he could create a world-changing technology. “We wanted to show it can be done,” he has said. Three years later he got his big break when he received an anonymous donation from Google cofounder Sergey Brin and a mandate to deliver a synthetic beef burger as quickly as possible.
Post’s method starts by taking a small sample of muscle stem cells from an animal, which in his case was a cow. Post then uses a mixture of sugars, amino acids, and blood from unborn cows to feed the stem cells. The nutrients allow the cells to multiply and create muscle tissue, muscle being the main component of the meat we eat.
The muscle cells still need, in the words of the researchers, to “bulk up” into solid fibers. So they are affixed to a soluble scaffold and, in effect, exercised with the help of tiny shocks of electrical current. Approximately one million cells are needed to create one muscle fiber, and it takes about 20,000 such fibers to make a five-ounce burger. Post’s team spent three months creating the one patty that arrived on the London stage.
But the resulting muscle fibers are still shy of edible. Post’s proof-of-concept burger, for example, started as yellow-white. He added beet juice and saffron to improve the coloring and flavor, and breadcrumbs and egg powder to get a texture similar to ground beef.
Other synthetic meat researchers acknowledge that the complexity of lab-grown meat is problematic. Hungarian-born US scientist Gabor Forgacs, who did his own public tasting of a small strip of lab-grown meat at a TED conference in February 2012, says Post’s burger was a “ridiculously expensive experiment.”
“I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea to make such a fuss about it, because what type of credibility will he gain by saying, ok I can do it, but it will cost $300,000?” Forgacs says. “You may turn off the kind of people who could fund this research.”
Forgacs should know. He has started his own synthetic meat company, Modern Meadow, backed by the US Department of Agriculture and private investors, including PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Forgacs admits that his own meat product, when finished, will also struggle to be cost-effective at first. However, in the long term, he says, it may prove the only meat we can afford to eat. “The rules of the game of meat production are not the same as they were 100 years ago – it’s not sustainable,” he says. “We are destroying this planet with intensive meat production.”
Eating the Planet
By now, the ecological and ethical problems surrounding industrial meat production are well known. The meat-heavy diets of Europe and the United States – which are being copied by newly affluent people in East Asia – are severely taxing the planet’s finite resources.
According to one estimate, about 28 percent of Earth’s land is used to feed or raise livestock, with around 60 billion farm animals housed, fed, and slaughtered every year. It all adds up to a gigantic amount of resources taken over just for meat production. Look at freshwater use, for example. Dutch researcher Arjen Hoekstra, creator of the water footprint concept, calculated that one 150 gram beef burger takes 2,400 liters of water to produce, once you account for the water used to grow the grain to feed the cow, and wash the equipment used in processing and slaughtering it. Meat production also has a large climate change footprint. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that beef production alone accounts for 41 percent of global agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Synthetic meat advocates such as Post and Forgacs say their lab-grown food can slash the amount of resources needed to sustain our protein needs. The most obvious benefit would be eliminating the waste that comes with a living and breathing animal: manure, methane emissions, and the conversion of feed into meat. A study published just days before Post’s London media event found that 36 percent of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, but only 12 percent of those calories ultimately contribute to the human diet. In theory, growing meat without raising an animal could reduce such inefficiency. Lab meat could also address other problems, including groundwater pollution from livestock manure and the overuse of chemical fertilizers for growing animal feed.
Lab meat supporters frequently cite a 2011 study from researchers at the University of Oxford to make their case. The paper found that lab-grown meat produces 78 to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat produced in the EU. It also says that lab meat has 99 percent lower land use and 82 to 96 percent lower water use.
The study, however, was based on the ideal of lab-grown meat, rather than the reality of what has been produced to date. It assumed that the meat cells would be fed an algae-based diet, as opposed to the mix of sugar and umbilical cord blood that Post used. Under ideal conditions, study co-author Hanna Tuomisto has said, if cultured meat constituted half of all meat consumed, then we could halve the greenhouse emissions associated with meat production (estimated by the FAO to be 14.5 percent of total global emissions), and increase the global forest cover by 50 percent, equivalent to four times the size of Brazil’s forested area.
Of course, “ideal” is a big caveat. The benefits of lab meat would be negated to some extent if the land taken out of pasture was converted into growing biofuels. If expanded to a large scale, growing meat in giant “bio-reactors” would also confront an energy issue. “Exercising” the muscle fibers with electrical currents could start to be a significant energy-suck, reducing the benefits of making a transition to lab meat.
Also, lab-grown meat doesn’t compare as well to real pork or poultry as it does to beef, because raising hogs or chicken has a lower ecological footprint than beef production. Cramming chickens into small cages for their entire lives might be inhumane, but it’s a highly efficient method for producing cheap meat (at least if you don’t include hidden costs such as the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections to humans). When Tuomisto calculated the energy use of lab-grown meat versus raising a live chicken, the old-fashioned poultry came out ahead.
Meat Without Murder
As the researchers work to perfect the techniques for synthetic meat production, environmentalists and animal rights groups are debating whether lab-grown meat can be a kind of killer app that will eliminate the need to kill animals – or a waste of time and a distraction from the ongoing campaigns to reduce our meat consumption.
“Why go to this much trouble and expense to replace a foodstuff that we simply do not need?” asks Lynne Elliot, chief executive at the Vegetarian Society. “Wouldn’t it be simpler, cheaper, and more sustainable to just stop eating meat altogether?”
Some major environmental groups think so. Friends of the Earth has dismissed lab-grown meat as a diversion from the effort to reform our industrial food system – a half-baked technofix for much bigger agriculture problems. “Our food system needs fixing, but we can’t fake our way into the solutions,” Greenpeace said in a statement following Post’s burger tasting. “Synthetic meat distracts agricultural research and funding away from ecological farming, the real solution to the disastrous livestock model that causes environmental and socioeconomic crises.”
Other influential voices remain focused on trying to encourage a vegetarian diet. The author Jonathan Safran Foer would be among that group. In his book, Eating Animals, he tracks his personal conversion to a vegetarian diet after spending time researching the meat industry, which he calls our “blindspot.”
“The fact that the people have been doing it for a long time, that we crave it or that our bodies seem to have evolved to eat it, doesn’t mean all that much to me,” he has told me in an interview. For Foer, meat consumption shouldn’t be a dilemma for environmentalists. “There is nothing necessary about it. We only eat meat because we like the taste and we should stop pretending it is about anything else.”
But, for many people, meat-eating is a dilemma. Despite decades of campaigning (Francis Moore Lappe’s seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet, was published in 1971), vegetarians remain a tiny minority. Campaigns such as Meatless Mondays have encouraged so-called meat reducers, or flexitarians. Yet the number of vegetarians in the US and Europe hovers at around 4 to 5 percent of the population, a figure largely unchanged over the past decade. And that’s even with the growing array of non-meat alternatives such as tofu chicken and soy burger, as well as vegetarian restaurants that are growing in number and excellence. Meanwhile, people in China are eating more meat than ever; the country is expected to witness sustained growth in meat consumption for another 15 to 20 years.
“Many carnivores are guilty carnivores: They know that meat-eating is problematic, but like it too much to give it up,” says Iain Brassington, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester. He says lab-grown meat is a good idea because it could reduce the “moral cost” of our food wants.
Some animal rights groups appear to have made the political calculation that, if they won’t be able to convince the world to go vegetarian or vegan, then lab-grown meat is an acceptable alternative. It’s like a harm-reduction strategy for addressing the routine cruelty of industrial meat production. Compassion in World Farming has come out in favor of synthetic meat, as has People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the first scientist who can create a commercially viable lab-grown chicken-meat product. The group is also supporting the work of lab-grown meat researcher Nicholas Genovese at the University of Minnesota.
“People are surprised to learn that PETA is interested in lab-grown meat,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk says. “But we have overcome our own revulsion at flesh-eating to champion a breakthrough that will mean a far kinder world for animals.”
Unlike other technological work-arounds such as genetically engineering animals not to feel pain, lab-grown meat would remove the need for an animal to die (or live) in the first place. It would be the ultimate de-materialization of agriculture, a sort of logical conclusion to the evolution of farming in which animals have moved from open pasture to industrial feedlots. Instead of factory farming, we would just have the factory – and we might be better of for it.
But perhaps such a thing will never come to pass. Post and Forgacs say it will take at least 10 to 20 years to bring synthetic meat to market. In the meantime, they have to overcome what could be an insurmountable hurdle: the yuk factor.
There’s No Accounting for Taste
With just one five-ounce burger on stage, there wasn’t much to share at Post’s launch event in London. But one unabashed journalist, spotting that neither of the two official tasters had taken much more than a single bite each, jumped up during the question and answer session and asked for a taste herself. Post told her “no.” He needn’t have worried about appearing unfair by giving a taste to just one person. As the event came to a close, there was no great stampede towards the stage to finish off the world’s most expensive burger scraps. Most of the journalists seemed firmly in the nice-idea-but-not-for-me camp.
Perhaps the reporters forgot, as they munched into ham sandwiches offered as refreshment, that we already live in a world awash with artificial foods. We’ve been sold meat substitutes such as beef extract in North America and Europe since the nineteenth century. A chicken nugget from a US fast food chain is only 40 percent muscle, according to a report published this year. Many snack foods are nothing more than a cleverly engineered combination of soy and corn. In Post’s view, there is no reason why a supermarket of the future shouldn’t stock his burger side by side with traditional meat. He plans to add fat, and perhaps even blood, to his product to make it more meat-like.
But even if Post were to craft the perfect sirloin simulacrum, his invention might still give many people the creeps. Some of the concerns swirling around lab-meat echo the worries about genetically modified foods – that in-vitro meat is somehow “unnatural.” The worries go even deeper than that, however, and touch on some of the fears ignited by the new science of synthetic biology. When we create life in a lab, we befuddle our understanding of what it means for something to be alive.
Here’s how Neil Stephens, a sociologist who studies the progress of technology, describes it: “The meat was never born, has never been ‘alive’ in any usual way we would apply to an animal, and has never been killed. It is perhaps best categorized as the ‘living-never born.’” That kind of mind-twister has helped birth all kinds of epithets for lab-meat. So far it has been referred to as zombie food, Frankenburger, shamburger, and the clearly derogatory, schmeat.
Professor Julie Gold, a biological physicist at Chalmers Technical University in Gothenburg, Sweden, has worked on lab-meat technology, and she acknowledges that Post’s public tasting session did little to dispel people’s uneasiness about having men in white coats engineer their food. “It was very unfortunate that Mark presented the hamburger in a petri dish,” says Gold, who remains a supporter of the technology. “We need to get away from the connection to ‘laboratory,’ which conjures up both Frankenstein as well as GMO-manipulation concepts, which is not the case. We cannot bring food into a laboratory and eat there, and we should not be able to eat anything which is produced in a traditional biology laboratory.”
Even the whiff of controversy has dissuaded many scientists and funders from working on lab-grown meat, according to Stephens. The field is still regarded as one to avoid within scientific circles, says David Williams, editor-in-chief of the journal Biomaterials. According to one estimate, there are about 40 researchers around the world working on some aspect of synthetic meat. But just a handful of those are, like Post and Forgacs, actually “making meat.” Lab-meat researchers have found it notoriously difficult to get funding from traditional institutions, with most funding in tissue engineering going toward medical research. Although he received financial help from Sergey Brin to make the initial concept burger, Post admits he is still looking for funding for his next stage of development. (Post also says that his family has been bewildered by his choice to drop his research into human heart repair for the lab-meat endeavor.) Forgacs has decided to delay his meat research and first focus on developing a “less controversial” lab-grown leather product.
Still, Forgacs and Post continue to keep the dream alive. Both of them enthuse about lab-grown meat being a liberating technology that will allow consumers to take control of food production away from the grip of meat industry giants. This is the modern fantasy of a Jetsons-like meal-in-a-pill translated to the era of 3-D printing. Some day you might be able to conjure up a roast beef sandwich with a click of a mouse.
”Who will eat this? Most likely, it will be a protein for the masses, for the poor.”
“There could be a consumer home appliance in the much longer term where consumers could grow their meat at home with ingredients bought at their local market,” Forgacs says. “This would be the birth of the homebrew movement for cultured meat. Businesses would compete to sell consumers better hardware and ingredients to support their craft.”
Not everyone is buying it. Trading a confined animal feed operation for a bioreactor meat factory only swaps out one industrialized system for another, critics says. And going to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for a bio-printed meal is hardly the ideal of self-sufficiency and independence from corporations. Geoff Tansey, trustee of the Food Ethics Council, says lab-meat is likely to worsen existing class divides on food consumption. “Who will eat this? Most likely, it will be a protein for the masses, or the poor,” he says. “The elite will still want the traditional, grass-reared version from real animals.”
Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University in London, agrees. “It lacks cachet, it’s not the real thing,” he says. “We should be aiming for better real food – not bizarre ersatz versions.”
As the lights dimmed on stage at the end of Post’s public tasting session, the presenter signed off what she called “this moment of history.” Judging by the hundreds of news stories that appeared the next day, Post’s show was historic, a tiny step toward some brave new world. But for now, at least, the public appears to be skeptical of how far the experiment will get. An examination of the pages upon pages of readers comments posted to stories about the lab-grown burger revealed that most people were unimpressed with the vision of a synthetic meat future.
“It’s all a bit daft really, isn’t it?” read one typical comment. “They should spend all those billions it’s going to take to get these things into supermarkets on a massive advertising campaign telling people ‘just eat broccoli.’ It’s sustainable, cheap, and doesn’t taste half bad tossed in a bit of garlic butter.”
Tom Levitt is a food and farming journalist and former deputy editor at the Ecologist magazine. Follow him @tom_levitt.