There's no two ways about it: humans love meat. By 2030, it's estimated that the world's annual meat production will reach 376 million tons, up from 218 million tons in 1999.
But conventional meat production is notoriously wasteful, and it's becoming more and more unsustainable by the day. Many scientists believe that meat grown in a lab could not only spare the lives of countless animals, but address issues of environmental sustainability, as well. Now, scientists in the Netherlands say lab-grown meat could be a reality as soon as August of next year. Who's ready for a petri patty?
Top image via Rutlo on Flickr.
Mark Post is a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Post cultivates living animal tissue, and his latest goal is to create a full-blown hamburger patty from strips of meat grown in a petri dish.
"The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it's possible," said Post in a recent interview with Reuters. "I believe I can do this in the coming year."
According to Stellan Welin, a bioethicist at Linkoping University in Sweden, research like Post's is a necessity if we are to continue meeting the ever-increasing demand for meat around the world — especially if we hope to do so in an environmentally conscious fashion.
"Of course you could do it by being vegetarian or eating less meat," he said. "But the trends don't seem to be going that way. With cultured meat we can be more conservative — people can still eat meat, but without causing so much damage."
By using stem cells harvested from animal remains (which were, in turn, acquired from slaughterhouses), Post has already succeeded in growing tiny little muscle-like strips of flesh, each one about an inch long, a centimeter wide, and almost thin enough to see through.
They're pretty much just like real muscle; they even need to be exercised to keep them from wasting away. They may never have tugged, twitched or jerked at the frame of a living, breathing animal, but stack enough of them on top of one another and you've got yourself a bona fide hunk of meat.
Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe conceptually, but apparently the process is pretty involved, which means it will also be pretty expensive.
Post estimates he'll need around 3,000 of his lab-grown meat sheets, all stacked and packed by trained professionals, to make his first "cultured meat" burger a reality.
"This first one will be grown in an academic lab, by highly trained academic staff," he said. "It's hand-made and it's time and labour-intensive, that's why it's so expensive to produce."
How expensive? About €250,000, or roughly $350,000.
And here's the real kicker: even though this petri patty is going to cost over a third of a million dollars to create, you probably wouldn't pay $3.00 for it at your local burger stand. Why? Because it's probably going to taste like crap.
Remember, this is pure muscle fiber we're talking about. There's no blood, so there's no color (Post likens the current color to that of scallop flesh); and there's no fat, so there's no flavor. To actually make this thing appetizing, Post is going to have to have to add fat to it, and maybe even a little lab-grown blood. But he's confident he can do it. And if he can, the implications could be huge.
"Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable," says Post. "Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view. Right now we are using more than 50 percent of all our agricultural land for livestock. It's simple maths. We have to come up with alternatives."