My Burger Was Born in a Petri Dish

It may sound outlandish to try and conceive of animals being grown in parts strictly for the purpose of consumption. It may sound obscene to think the leftovers from a slaughterhouse have the necessary stem cells to be reproduced into edible muscle tissue. Maybe it’s ridiculous, but maybe it’s the future of your dinner.

Last week, Mark Post, a biomedical engineering scientist from the Netherlands, announced that he had successfully grown muscle tissue from discarded animal products. A combination of sugars, amino acids, lipids, and other nutrients “feed” proteins and encourage them to grow. The result, so far, is a thin, inch-long strip (3,000 of which would be required to make a hamburger patty).

Not quite edible “meat”

Right now the meat product is a little unappetizing. It lacks both fat and blood, so it doesn’t taste like much and looks like a lump of scallop meat. People aren’t likely to be racing to the grocery store for it just yet. However, Post is optimistic that the ability to control all variables in the lab will not only allow him to create something tasty, but also healthier than traditional meat sources (without saturated fat and with extra nutrients).

Unlike imitation meats currently on the market (made from vegetable proteins or soy), in-vitro meat is a real animal flesh product – it’s just never been part of a complete, living animal.

How much is in-vitro meat going to cost?

The first hamburger is expected to carry the lofty price tag of $345,000.  Don’t think that’s reasonable for a quick week-night dinner? Don’t worry. Post says “the first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it’s possible… [it] will be grown in an academic lab by highly trained staff. It’s handmade and it’s time- and labour-intensive. That’s why it’s so expensive.”

Whatever the initial costs, the concept of growing meat in labs might be worth its weight in gold. According to the World Health Organization, global meat consumption is expected to increase from 218 million tons in 1997-99 to 376 million tons in 2030. Not sustainable.

Of course some people will be against the whole concept. It’s weird and hard for anyone to wrap their head around. Hard also, though, to argue with the fact that growing in-vitro meats would use 35-60 percent less energy, emit 85-90 percent less greenhouse gas and use about 98 percent less land than traditional agriculture (source: Hanna Tuomisto, Environmental Science and Technology journal). In addition, lab-grown meat will have none of the diseases, impurities, or contaminants found in livestock, such as Mad Cow Disease.

If protein choices come down to lentils or man-made meat, I have a sneaking suspicion that the baconoholics will be the first to cave, but many others will be close behind.

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