Could we someday be eating synthetic meat? Backed by Google billionaire Sergey Brin, Dutch tissue engineer Mark Post has created “cultured beef” which he unveiled at a press event. The verdict? “It is close to meat,” said nutrition scientist Hanni Rutzler. “It is not that juicy.” But British chef Richard McGeowan said the lack of fat didn’t affect his cooking of the five ounces of minced “meat” in a frying pan, thanks to lots of butter.
In addition to a lack of fat with the meat, the in vitro meat features heavy antibiotic use to keep the cells alive. There are questions about its nutritional value as well, such as how much iron it might contain compared with traditional meat. The lab meat has to be colored red, by adding beet juice because it is composed of 20,000 or so thin strips of muscle cells rather than the complicated mix of muscle, fat, blood vessels and bone found in meat from an animal.
Lab-Grown Burgers Just Got A LOT Cheaper!
Despite all this, the lab beef is being cultured (and feted) because of its potential to reduce the environmental impacts of the human taste for meat. As Post notes, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that demand for meat will swell by more than 70 percent by 2050. Already 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land is devoted to feeding animals for meat thanks to the fact that cows and pigs convert only roughly 15 percent of the plants they eat into edible meat. Then there’s the problem of the greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, from all those ruminant belches and their waste, often stored in massive, smelly lagoons. The FAO estimates that livestock are responsible for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—more than all cars, trucks, ships and airplanes put together.
Of course, to reduce those emissions, the lab meat would have to be grown on a diet of algae, something that has never been accomplished. If that can be done on a big scale (and that’s a big if), the lab meat would reduce methane pollution by 95 percent, as well as reduce the need for farmlands to feed livestock by 98 percent, according to a 2011 study by the University of Oxford published in Environmental Science and Technology.
The other reason for the hoopla is ethical: philosopher Peter Singer and groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals extol such efforts for eliminating human cruelty to animals. Why not harvest muscle cells from a single cow to culture millions of hamburgers rather than slaughtering hundreds of thousands of cattle?
Researchers such as Forgacs and Post predict that it will take between 10 and 20 years to bring lab meat and meat products down in price and onto store shelves. Given that Post’s first petri patty has appeared nearly two years later than was first promised, that objective will likely prove optimistic. Don’t look for McDonald’s to be offering synthetic burgers any time soon.
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