“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,” predicted famed British politician Winston Churchill in a 1932 essay titled Fifty Years Hence. Although off by a few decades, Churchill’s prophecy may finally be coming to eerie fruition.
The process of growing meat in a lab, while nascent and sure to encounter obstacles and complications, is nonetheless rife with potential to profoundly change the way humans produce and consume protein. Cultured meat (also known as synthetic meat, in vitro meat, or clean meat) has recently become possible because of advances in stem cell research and tissue engineering. The process of growing tissue outside the body in a lab involves self-replicating cells, food, hormones, and other factors that allow original cells to grow and proliferate, eventually creating strips of synthetic animal muscle that are essentially meat.
Although the thought of this may bring a knee-jerk stank-face to many, the potential benefits that cultured meat may provide may be worth getting over any negative knee-jerk reactions. For one, the world population is already dealing with a major protein crisis that only figures to get worse. According to a 2012 United Nations report, the world’s population is expected to surpass nine billion by the year 2050, which means meat production (if our current consumption remains the same) would need to almost double to provide protein to a population that size. Producing this much meat using conventional methods could severely harm or even destroy the planet. The report states that current meat and dairy production account for 19 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, 38 percent of global land use, and 70 percent of global water use. And although cultured meat production would surely leave some sort of carbon footprint as well, the thought is that if it is done correctly and efficiently, it has the potential to be much less harmful to the environment.
Cultured meat could also curb or even completely end what many consider to be the barbaric practices involved in the raising and slaughtering of live animals for food. Would vegetarians eat it? From a health perspective, cultured meat also has the potential to be engineered to be more nutritious, as well as cleaner and more free of disease than conventional meat.
In 2013, the world’s first lab-grown burger was produced from living cow stem cells by scientists, led by professor Mark Post. He is now involved in a cultured meat startup company called Mosa Meat. There is also a San Francisco-based startup called Memphis Meats that recently released its versions of lab-grown fried chicken, beef meatballs, and duck a l’orange. Other startups are working on developing similar products—even Tyson Foods, America’s largest meat company, launched a venture capital fund intended on investing in innovative approaches for protein production. There are also several research institutes advocating for and working on the development of cultured meat, and even government regulatory organizations are getting involved and working to establish guidelines.
Outside the lab, one obstacle is mass public acceptance. Palatability will go a long way toward potentially changing this negative ingrained mindset. Tasters of cultured meat products have generally said that the flavor and texture are similar to that of the real thing, although not exactly the same. Companies would need to work on creating close enough facsimiles that would hold their own in blind taste tests. This may be especially difficult for products like hamburgers and steaks that have significant fat content, which contribute to their natural taste and texture. Producing lab-grown fat would involve a separate and similarly complicated biogenic process.
Another major hurdle is reducing the production cost of cultured meat to bring it up to par with conventional prices. Although this may take a while, history has shown us that when a technology’s time has come, it is only a matter of time before costs come down to a point where it goes mainstream.