The hunt for lab-grown meat: On the brink of a revolution in food production, uncertainties and optimism reign

By Daniel Merino

Cover Photo: Mosa Meats

The most expensive hamburger of all time was eaten in a fluorescently lit London TV studio in 2013, and apparently, it wasn’t even all that good. According to the two food critics who tried the $325,000 burger, it was “not that juicy” but at least it “felt like a hamburger.” Luckily for the two diners, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, picked up the tab for the less-than-stellar meal that was the public unveiling of the worlds first cultured meat burger. It was real beef that was eaten that night in London, but instead of being grown as part of an animal, this meat was grown in a lab.

Austrian nutritional scientist Hanni Rützler tasting the world’s first cultured hamburger in London on 5 August 2013.
Photo: World Economic Forum

People have long contemplated the possibility of growing meat without the animal, but only in the last 20 years has this become a technological reality. Advances in cellular agriculture have brought down the cost of growing muscle tissue so much, that by the end of this year, a US company is hoping to have a cultured meat product for sale. Experts in the field think this meat will be sold at a very small scale somewhere outside of the US to avoid regulatory issues, but this could be the beginning of a fundamental shift in how we think about meat. It is looking more and more likely that soon your steak will not be born of the fields and feedlots of America’s cattle herds, but from a factory more resembling your local microbrewery than a slaughterhouse.

The steps to grow animal tissue have been the same for decades: remove some cells from an animal, place them into a liquid known as a culture medium with nutrients, and wait. Cell replication has been possible since the late 1800’s, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that research into cultured meat for consumption started in earnest. A handful of projects emerged in the late 1990’s; NASA grew goldfish-cell fish filets, a Harvard research and arts group grew and ate a frog-cell “steak”, and a few patents were filed, but the idea of consuming meat grown outside of an animal didn’t really enter the public eye until 2008, when PETA offered a one million dollar prize to the first group to successfully bring cultured meat to market. This popularity peaked in 2013 when Dr. Mark Post, then of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, unveiled his $325,000, grown-in-a-lab burger on live TV.

The current (photoshoot) state of cultured meat hamburgers.
Photo: Mosa Meats, David Parry/PA

No matter how delicious or ethical, a $100 hamburger, much less a $325,000 one, isn’t going to sell at your local supermarket. Bankrolled by tech venture capital and some seriously moneyed individuals, a number of startups have emerged in the last five years and have been making astonishing progress in bringing this cost down. The teams working on these products are mostly private but researchers do have some ideas of how this was done. “The patent world is the only way to see into what the private companies are doing,” says Andrew Stout, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University and research fellow for New Harvest, a non-profit research institute focused on promoting cellular agriculture. Dr. Neil Stephens, a biomedical sociologist who has been studying societal impacts of cultured meat since 2010, believes the advancements have occurred in what the cells are being fed. “If you talk to the people who are getting this done, they will tell you it’s the culture media that is the biggest hurdle.”

Traditionally, the culture media for growing muscle tissue was fetal bovine serum, blood plasma removed from cow fetuses collected during the slaughter of meat cows. It is comically not vegan, and extremely expensive, neither of which lend themselves to the market of meat alternatives.  “There are plenty of serum-free media that have been described. The key is finding a cheap one,” says Stout. Just Inc. a leader in animal product free foods, claims to have done just that, and as a result, they are claiming they will have a clean meat product for sale by the end of 2018 that is within 30% of the price of traditionally grown meat. If true, we may be on the brink of historical change to the meaning of food.

The Lab Grown Burger in 2013. 
Photo: World Economic Forum

But price is not the only factor at play when it comes to the food we eat. Especially with meat, the implications are far broader than questions of “does it taste good?” and “is it cheap?” With climate change an ever-looming threat, meat grown without a methane burping cow is an appealing idea and one that may have some truth to it. Until a full life-cycle assessment can be conducted for the production of cultured meat, any claims of environmental benefits are only speculative, but in a 2011 study, researchers estimated that cultured meat would result in “approximately 78–96% less greenhouse gas emissions, 99% less land use, 82–96% less water use, and 7–45% less energy use, depending upon what meat product is it compared to.”

These optimistic claims have been cautioned by some scientists, including Dr. Carolyn Mattick, a civil, environmental and sustainable engineer, but she does believe cultured meat has a role to play. “I think sustainability requires a certain option space, the ability to do things differently and adapt as necessary. Cultured meat is a different option.” Mattick cautioned that the energy use of cultured meat may be greater than growing livestock, particularly chicken and pork, but Dr. Matt Hayek, an environmental scientist at Harvard, noted the small relative importance of energy when it comes to animal agriculture. “Energy usage of livestock is 3% of its global budget of greenhouse gas emissions.” Hayek also noted the potential reduction of methane, a gas emitted by cows that has 30 times the global warming potential of CO2. He argued that “If you look a the possible contribution of methane to the environmental effects, hurricanes, forest fires, and others, it has a higher contribution than people give it credit for. If there is a rapid transition to cultured meat, that would have a rapid impact on the global warming effect of methane.”

Assuming we can grow cultured meat for cheap, and that it is more environmentally friendly than animal agriculture, people still have to want to eat it. And that is no guarantee. Many people feel a revulsion to the idea. This is called the “yuck” factor, a term coined in 2013, that some believe is caused by cultured meat falling in a gastronomical uncanny valley. Matt Ball is the senior media relations specialist with the Good Food Institute, a non-profit that supports both public research and private companies in the cellular agriculture industry. He believes that the hesitancy towards clean meat as he calls it, is the same that any new technology faces and that the emotional desire to stop the killing of animals will overcome the yuck factor. He cited two polls by the Sentience Institute and Oklahoma State University, which found strong support for a ban on slaughterhouses as proof. “It will come onto the market, and the 47% of people who don’t want animals to be slaughtered will buy it and that will be that.” Ball does not eat animal products, and when asked whether he would eat clean meat, he responded “Oh absolutely. I am one of the 47% of people who would like to ban slaughterhouses. I don’t crave spinach, but I do really like meat and I would be happy to eat clean meat.”

The environmental benefits, cost, and social acceptance of cultured meat are uncertain, but it is already profoundly changing the way some people think and talk about what we eat. Stout pointed to the future, optimistic, saying “It is important to recognize that nobody knows what this will look like, if it even exists at all, and will likely exist in hundreds of permutations. I think its cool to think about the scope of the possibilities.”