With livestock production accounting for some 18% of all greenhouse gases, an industrialized system that relies on maximized output from increasingly sick and/or disfigured animals, and a legacy of antibiotic resistance, our taste for meat has become an increasingly problematic demand. For some, it’s an ethical quandary. For others, it’s a matter of environmental efficiency. For Dr. Mark Post, a professor researching lab-grown meat at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, it’s been an opportunity to create another type of burger entirely.
Post, along with Chicago food writer Josh Schonwald and researcher Hanni Rützler, tried the world’s first stem-cell grown burger, a major touchstone of Post’s seven year, government-funded investigation of in-vitro meat. Out of muscle cells scraped (painlessly, according to researchers) from a cow, scientists grew 20,000 strands of tissue in a nutrient-rich solution with antibiotics and fetal calf blood, then mashed those strands together into a five-ounce burger patty. Researchers added beet juice and saffron to bring out a more “natural” color.
“It had a very sort of bland, neutral flavor. I think the thing that made it most similar was the texture,” Schonwald said after trying the patty, which had been pan-fried. “I was impressed with the bite.”
Post certainly hasn’t been the only scientist interested in lab-grown meat. Over the last decade, NASA has developed in vitro turkey meat toward the goal of creating lasting, sustainable astronaut food, and in 2009, Dutch researchers created lab-grown pork. Post’s burger, however, was the first beef hatched from a petri dish to land in a person’s mouth.
“The aim is to of course make a consumer product out of it,” Post said. “It may take 10 years, maybe even earlier.”
Post’s burger arrives at a time when demand for meat from India and China is skyrocketing, as are technological hacks to a complex and sickened agricultural system. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have waded into the meat game, creating not lab-grown meat, but soy and plant protein products built to resemble the bite, texture, and taste of chicken as closely as possible. The $332,000 lab-grown burger also owes its existence to Valley money, as it was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Still, whether another technological fix can truly “disrupt” or resolve a history of industrialized messes made worse by the ruthless scaling up of food production practices remains to be seen. We’ve only just had our first bite.