On the traditional meat replacement creepiness scale, test-tube steak hovers somewhere near the top. It’s definitely creepier than some of the realistic plant-based meat replacements –and more difficult to pull off.
Nonetheless, a small group of dedicated scientists is working to ensure that your future hearty meat dinner comes from a lab instead of a cow. They have been successful enough that the first cultured hamburger, created from bits of test-tube muscle tissue, will be shown off and eventually eaten at an upcoming event in London. The only catch: it cost $325,000 to produce.
There are innumerable environmental benefits to eating lab-grown meat instead of meat from live animals. In one 2011 study, researchers found that the environmental impact of in vitro meat production is dramatically lower than conventionally produced meat. That’s because cultured meat sidesteps all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising livestock: converting forests to grasslands, managing manure, dealing with methane emissions from cow farts, and so on.
The price of cultured meat, however, is completely unsustainable–at least for now. The New York Times recently spoke to Dr. Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, about his work creating the first cultured hamburger:
Dr. Post, who knows as much about the subject as anybody, has repeatedly postponed the hamburger cook-off, which was originally expected to take place in November. His burger consists of about 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue. Dr. Post, who has conducted some informal taste tests, said that even without any fat, the tissue “tastes reasonably good.” For the London event he plans to add only salt and pepper.
But the meat is produced with materials–including fetal calf serum, used as a medium in which to grow the cells–that eventually would have to be replaced by similar materials of non-animal origin. And the burger was created at phenomenal cost–250,000 euros, or about $325,000, provided by a donor who so far has remained anonymous.
Post’s cultured meat creation process goes something like this: myosatellite cells, a kind of stem cell that repairs muscle tissue, are taken from a cow neck and put in containers along with fetal calf serum (the medium, which will eventually switch to a non-animal source). The cells are placed onto gel in a plastic dish, where the calf serum’s nutrients are reduced, triggering the cells to go into starvation mode and split into muscle cells. Those cells eventually merge into muscle fibers called myotubes and start synthesizing protein. The end product is a tissue strip, described by the New York Times as “something like a short pink rice noodle.”
Once scientists figure out how to make the cultured meat production process more efficient, test tube meat may end up being cheaper than the conventionally produced stuff–you don’t have to feed and care for a whole cow, you just need to deal with the pieces that people want to eat.
But that’s a long way off. Modern Meadow, a Peter Thiel-backed startup that is also working on test tube meat, decided that the cultured meat production process is too nascent to focus on right now–instead, the company is first working on test-tube leather. “The idea struck us that if we can make medical-grade tissues that are good enough for drug companies, good enough for patients, then certainly we can find other applications for tissue engineering,” co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs explained in an interview with Co.Exist. Even the cultured leather won’t be ready for large-scale production for five years.
Once cultured meat makes it into production, brands will have to deal with the “ick” factor. But if beef prices continue to rise–and it looks like they will–consumers may quickly get over their squeamishness.