Imagine that those hamburgers you’re grilling this summer were grown in a petri dish in a lab rather than on a ranch.
Scientists say the technology might be closer than you think.
Companies, nonprofits and university researchers are refining techniques for growing meat products in the lab, says Liz Specht, senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that presses for “healthy, humane, and sustainable food.” “Clean meat,” as Specht described it at the Society for In Vitro Biology meeting in Raleigh last week, is an attempt to try to meet rising global demand for food and to address environmental impacts such as carbon dioxide and animal waste. Specht says clean meat requires less land and water than conventional meat and also reduces ethical concerns associated with the treatment and welfare of animals.
As strange as “lab meat” sounds, when you break any animal meat down into its components, it is a conglomeration of various types of cells, the basic units that make up living things. When pooled together, these cells contribute to the texture and flavors that we associate with meat.
Scientists first started raising populations of cells in the laboratory around the turn of the 19th century, and it has become a routine part of scientific research. Clean meat producers employ these scientific principles to grow species-specific cell populations that can be induced to create consumable meat products.
The idea of lab-grown meat has been discussed for decades. A similar concept was proposed by Sir Winston Churchill who, in 1931, said, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
But the process has only become feasible in the last decade, attracting increased attention. The first laboratory-generated hamburger was first tasted by the public in Maastricht, Netherlands, in 2013, and early last year, California-based company Memphis Meats introduced its “clean meatballs” made with lab-grown beef. Others have made lab chicken, duck and fish.
Lab-grown meat is not cheap. The Dutch scientists’ hamburger is estimated to have cost $330,000, and clean meatballs run about $18,000 per pound, so it’s probably not something consumers will add to their grocery lists anytime soon. Still, cost is coming down as scientists work with engineers to refine the techniques for culturing cells.
“Cost is a major concern to drive down,” Specht said. “If you look at the R&D cost for something like the iPhone, this is something faced by other industries.”
That high cost will be a challenge, according to Dana Hanson, an associate professor of food science at N.C. State University, who sees increasing global demand for food as a primary driver for this type of research. Hanson says the impact of lab-grown meat, or “alternative protein” as he refers to the products, will be limited by cost for the foreseeable future and that it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the benefits of lab-grown meat.
In the meantime, more traditional advances in agricultural are helping to satisfy global demands while also reducing the impact on the environment. For example, Hanson says, “precision agriculture” has revolutionized crop technology, leading to varieties that best match geographical location while requiring fewer herbicides and pesticides. Animal agriculture has also embraced technology and obtained similar results. “These methods are already helping provide safe and affordable food for the masses,” Hanson said.
If we think about the future…, it is estimated that by 2050, our agricultural production, both plant and animal, will need to feed 9 billion people.
Dana Hanson, an associate professor of food science at N.C. State University
As for taste, clean meat producers aim to please. The molecules that contribute to taste are highly complex and undergo unique changes depending on how the meat is prepared and cooked. The goal, said Specht, is to produce meat that is “molecularly identical” to conventional meat. She recently sampled the products and said that “the mouth feel was far more meaty than other meat substitutes.” She also says the protein content will be comparable to traditional meat.
But will people want to eat lab-grown meat? While public availability is likely a few years off, Memphis Meats has initiated a crowdfunding campaign promising “first bites” to participants. The campaign has garnered support from nearly 2,400 donors and surpassed its fundraising goal of $100,000. According to previous reports, the company aims to have products on store shelves in 5 years.
NCSU environmental sciences student and vegetarian Hannah Deasy said she would be willing to try lab-grown meat.
“My main reason for being a vegetarian is animal rights and CO2 emissions,” Deasy said during a recent visit to the State Farmers Market. “If I can stop being a part of that, I definitely would.”
But not everyone has an appetite for lab meat. Mark Beal of Moore County said he isn’t even interested in trying engineered meat, because he thinks humans were made to eat the real thing.
“It just doesn’t sound right,” he said. “Your meat is supposed to be walking around in the field eating grass.”
Jeremy Frieling: 919-829-4610