Lab-grown meat—those three words rarely generate watering taste buds. However, what was once seen as a bizarre cloning experiment may be on the grocery shelves in as early as five years.
The advantages stretch beyond the ethics of eating animals. Lab-grown meat would produce an estimated 96% less greenhouse gas, according to an independent study from the University of Oxford, and take up 99% less land—no need for land for cattle to roam. But there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make the meat efficient and affordable. Two years ago, a team at Maastricht University in Holland, led by Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology, produced a hamburger-sized patty that cost $326,000. But once this price drops, lab-grown meat could mean big changes for the food industry and consumers. Post claims to BBC their meat will be ready for market as early as 2020.
Laboratories use different methods to make lab-grown meat, but they all take the same basic approach. They isolate and culture stem cells and muscle cells, then grow them without needing byproducts from a living animal. Scientists use the same principle in growing human tissue for medical uses, such as skin grafts for a burn victim. However, lab-grown meat is not as vegetarian-friendly as it might seem. Labs often use “fetal calf serum”—a blood component taken from calves of pregnant, slaughtered cows—in cell cultures to mimic blood.
People have criticized farm animals’ housing for creating conditions prone to disease. While raw lab-grown meat will be just as susceptible to mold and bacteria as conventional meat, diseases like Mad-Cow and e. Coli contamination will be obsolete in a lab.
Amanda Kinchla, food scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has created another type of synthetic meat, called mock meat. She uses proteins from plants to copy the taste and consistency of real meat, unlike lab-grown meat which uses real meat stem cells. In addition to avoiding animal products, mock meat has health benefits. Proteins from plants contain lower levels of saturated fats and in some cases, more protein than regular meat, according to Kinchla.
Aside from technical questions, experts wonder if consumers would be willing to trade their free-range hamburger for a test tube patty. David Dubois, chef and CEO of Franklin Restaurant Group—owner of the popular Boston chain Tasty Burger—said he wasn’t thrilled when he heard about the idea of “fake meat”. Although he’s never sampled the product, his biggest concern was taste—he just didn’t see how meat grown in a lab could mimic all the delicate components of what makes meat taste good.
However, he seemed both curious and optimistic. “It’s a fascinating avenue to go down in a world where food is in short supply and population is increasing,” he said. “(Customers) want food that’s safe and food that tastes good and food that’s relatively affordable. I think if you hit those three criteria you’re in pretty good shape.” Chef Dubois added that just as with genetically modified food, he felt certain that consumers would want to know if their meat was man-made. Those who are uneasy with GMOs are likely to raise concerns about lab-grown meat, too.
When questioned gauging a possible interest in vegetarians, Dr. Kinchla said, “Personally, I don’t know. It’s an unknown market…but if you love a cheeseburger, maybe this is the solution.”