Photo courtesy of Julija Rauluševičiūtė via Flickr.

How Lab-Grown Meat Could Replace Destructive Meat Production Techniques

Meat production around the world has tripled over the last three decades, and could double by 2050, causing massive environmental problems. Could lab-grown meat be the solution?

According to an extensive 2010 report by the environmental non-profit Island Press hosted on the United Nations’ agriculture page, this “revolution” in the livestock industry will have significant consequences for the global economy, environment, and human health.

Some major findings from the report:

  • There are more than 1.7 billion animals in livestock production systems around the world, taking up more than a quarter of the planet’s surface

  • Feeding these animals requires crops from a third of the world’s total arable land

  • This production cycle produces about 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

With the world’s population increasing to a projected 9.1 billion people by 2050, food production would have to increase by 70%, according to the United Nations.

And as yield per acre of crop is expected to improve at half its current rate, some are concerned about just where this food production will be coming from.

Synthetic meat

Google co-founder Sergey Brin made a stir in August 2013 when he invested €250,000 – about $400,000 – in a company that could grow beef in a lab.

But that was only the latest – and most publicized – effort to find a new way of creating meat.

The idea was patented in the Netherlands in 1999, and research groups have been working on it since 2004, according to the Oxbridge Biotech Review.

In 2007, an organization of scientists with the admittedly unappetizing name “The In Vitro Meat Consortium” was formed to promote large-scale production of synthetic meat.

How it works

According to a paper shared by Harvard University, there are three feasible approaches to producing synthetic, lab-grown meat:

  • Scaffolding, which produces muscle tissue similar in structure to ground beef, without fat or blood

  • Tissue culture, which produces more muscle-like meat

  • Organ printing + essentially printing meat in a 3D printer.

The latter is considered to be the method that would produce the most authentic meat, but it’s also the most far-fetched. There are companies actively working on it, however, such as Modern Meadows, which wants to 3D-print meat and leather.

Is it feasible?

According to an article in Nature magazine, cultured meat luminary Mark Post says he usually estimates the cost of fully commercializing lab-grown meat at about $160 million.

And in their preliminary economic study, the In Vitro Meat Consortium estimated that the first generation of this meat would cost twice as much as regular meat. Of course, improvements in technology could significantly reduce costs.

Studies such as this study from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam have suggested that cultured meat would drastically decrease the environmental impact of meat production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 96%, land use by 99%, water use by 96%, and energy use by 45%.

But others, such as biologist Margaret Mellon from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that the process may take a lot more energy than scientists currently think.

Does lab-grown meat even taste good?

Most importantly for full-scale commercialization, however, would be whether lab-grown meat could actually replace real meat in peoples’ diets.

Sergey Brin’s $300,000 burger didn’t exactly receive raving reviews – it was declared to taste “close to meat,” according to Reuters.

However, it was produced with the most basic scaffolding process, meaning it only produced tissue, without the blood, fat, and exercise that gives meat its traditional flavor.

If this could be replicated – as many think a 3D printer, as well as electronic stimuli mimicking exercise, would be capable of – the perfect taste could technically be replicated.

For now, however, we’ll have to keep enjoying our mechanically separated meat.

Originally published on December 16, 2013. 

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