The hamburger is a nearly complete reflection of America through the 20th century.
Popularized by White Castle and McDonald’s, burgers only became the cheap, fast food we know and love in concert with improvements in food preservation, mass production lines, long-distance freight, and agricultural yields. This efficiency led to excess: Red meat consumption rose through the mid-1900s until it was overtaken by America’s love affair with chicken over the last few decades. Today, U.S. residents still eat nearly 100 pounds of red meat (beef, veal, and pork) a year—far more than most of the rest of the world. (The only two countries that eat more per capita are Argentina and Uruguay.) If you’re like three out of four Americans, you probably ate a burger within this last week.
Now consider what it took to make that hamburger. First, a cow, which gives its life to produce about a 1,000 quarter-pounders, or less than 30 seconds of sales at McDonald’s. That cow ate a lot of feed (likely corn), which took water, land, and fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer to grow. It may have been fed antibiotics or hormones to make it fat, and, on the other end, farted and burped climate-warming methane and excreted river-polluting waste. And it almost certainly did not live happily.
For the entire 20th century, this industrialized meat system was the model of efficiency, nourishing America’s growing population effectively, conveniently, and affordably. But viewed in another light—one focused on environmental damages, suffering, and waste (of calories, energy, natural resources)—it is at the extreme of inefficiency. A better model would be to eat more calories directly from plants and raise livestock humanely and sustainably, though at a higher cost.
Until very recently, there was little argument about which values mattered. Factory farms and government subsidies have provided all the meat Americans could want. But as the whole developing world starts to adopt a more American-style diet, the flaws of this system have become more glaring. The environmental and public health impacts of a global meat addiction—which include climate, air, and water pollution; the rise of antibiotic resistance and livestock disease outbreaks; and heart disease—have become larger and more consequential. Just as climate change became a more serious problem when poorer countries started to burn fossil fuels at America’s and Europe’s levels, the same thing is true of the livestock industry.
“The problem of animal agriculture is multifaceted,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute, a startup incubator seeking to create a more sustainable food system. “One of the problems is the vast inefficiency. Agricultural economists have been writing for decades about the problem of the developing world wanting to eat like the developed world, and specifically wanting to eat animal products that are so vastly inefficient,” he says. “That system needs to be disrupted. If the developing world wants to eat meat, they’re not going to be able to do it with conventional agriculture without exacerbating the myriad problems of meat.”
Environmental, health, and animal welfare campaigners have worked to disrupt this system for a long time. While they are starting to making a dent in U.S. consumption, the fact remains that only about 5% of the population is vegetarian and that’s not likely to shoot up. More recently, the tech and investor community has started to get involved in the issue—after all, if there’s one thing that today’s 21st-century techno-optimists truly hate, it’s waste and inefficiency.
Here’s their question: What if there could be a third alternative between the two extremes of factory farms and a plant-based paradise? What if we could make burgers and other types of meats, eggs, and dairy products without making the cows, pigs, and chickens? In other words, a small group of scientists and very early-stage companies are asking: What if we could build animal proteins from the ground up, taking the actual animal out of the supply chain?
The answers to these questions have partly centered around an academic named Mark Post at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. In 2013, with the financial backing of Google founder Sergey Brin, the previously low-profile biomedical engineer held a much publicized live taste test of the world’s first test-tube burger.
It was a real meat burger and it tasted not terrible, but it was more of an effective publicity stunt than revolution in the food system. The burger cost $325,000 to produce, and that was the least of its problems. Due to a variety of technical challenges that hadn’t yet been solved, it was still many years away—at the time Post said more than 20—from a product that any non-exceptionally rich consumers would get to eat.
But the world’s interest is exactly what was needed to spur its development forward. “Our goal is primarily to solve the problems of food security and environmental consequences of meat production,” says Post. “For that, you need to think big scale. Otherwise there’s no point.”
Maastricht is a small city that is bisected by the Meuse—or Mosa in Latin—River. If Post is successful, it may one day be the early Silicon Valley of the “cultured meat” industry. In October, the university and New Harvest, an incubator for the “post-animal bioeconomy,” hosted the world’s first cultured meat symposium, attended by a little more than a hundred academics, idealists, and investors. The city is also the inspiration for Post’s recently formed company, Mosa Meat, which is now aiming to build the first commercial meat-manufacturing system there within five years.
The idea of cultured meat is not new, even if the name is. At various points, the technology has been dubbed in vitro meat, test-tube meat, shmeat, and artificial meat, to name a few. Proponents, however, are trying to make the term “cultured” stick. No one wants to eat something explicitly made in a test tube, and besides, by the time this food is at a supermarket, its production facilities might be more similar to beer breweries than lab benches. Post envisions that Mosa Meat’s first commercial “bioreactors” will be half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool. He calculates that just one would produce more than 3 million quarter-pounders a year—that’s the same as 3,000 cows.
Cultured meat today exists in a no-man’s land between medical and food science, and the concept was dreamed up before either field was advanced enough to make it happen. If there is a founding thinker, it is none other than Winston Churchill, who aside from his political achievements managed to be a pretty decent futurist. Likely inspired by the French scientist Alexis Carrel’s fame for keeping an embryonic chicken heart alive in a flask for 20 years, Churchill predicted in a 1932 essay titled “Fifty Years Hence”: “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.”
But the man who really brought cultured meat to life was the Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen, a former World War II POW who became obsessed with the concept in his youth and then spent his life waiting for the science to catch up. By the early 2000s, in his older years, he had a patent and had persuaded the Dutch government to give some funding to a project that would later give rise to Post’s own work (van Eelen died last year). NASA, too, saw potential for lab-grown meat to feed its astronauts: The result was a strange experiment in 2002 that made a fish fillet from hacked together goldfish cells.
It is one thing to grow some cells in a petri dish. It is another to create whole bodily tissues, such as fat and muscle, that resemble the taste and texture of the flesh we love to eat. But there is an existing, comparatively well-funded field called regenerative medicine that has spent many years working to do something similar. In medical labs around the world, tissue engineers have focused on repairing human organs or even growing or 3-D printing new ones for human transplant in a lab, from trying to grow new hearts for cardiac disease patients to new skin for burn victims. These innovations are just starting to come out of the research lab—lab-grown trachea transplants are an early example. Regenerative medicine is a very different challenge but the concepts are similar—just as a steak is harder to make than a burger, so is a heart a bigger challenge than skin.
The nascent cultured meat field has started borrowing from the pool of talent in this field. Post is a tissue engineer. Another is Amit Gefen, an Israeli researcher who has spent the last decade working to grow muscles in order to improve wound treatment methods. A group called the Modern Agriculture Foundation approached him in 2014 and asked if he could engineer muscle for the food industry, too, specifically chicken. “It was straightforward for me to say, ‘I can do that,’” says Gefen, who is now working on early prototypes. Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn startup working to grow both leather and meat, was cofounded by a father and son who previously were behind Organovo, a company that bio-prints human tissues.
An explosion of early-stage companies are now aiming their sights at the most common animal products, including red meat and chicken, steak, cheese, milk, egg whites, gelatin, and even silk and horseshoe crab blood (used in medicine). New Harvest, based in New York, also wants to create a new name for the larger field, which includes food and nonfood products. It has landed on the term “cellular agriculture.”
Some of products of cellular agriculture, such as milk, egg, and cheese, will likely come to the market more quickly than meat. For example, Clara Foods, a company incubated by New Harvest, relies on more proven synthetic biology methods. To make egg whites, there’s no need to carefully build textured tissue. Instead, they are genetically engineering yeast to produce the handful proteins that are responsible for an egg’s magically diverse foaming, emulsifying, clarifying, and gelatinous properties. Engineered microbes are, in a similar process, already used to commercially manufacture artificial animal-free rennet for cheese and insulin for diabetes patients. Other companies are starting to use microbes to manufacture scents and flavors. The process is relatively well understood.
“You can create an egg white that will look, cook, and taste like one,” cofounder Arturo Elizondo said at a recent conference. He thinks there will be demand not only from ethically minded consumers but commercial buyers as well: Egg white prices have tripled in the last three years, in part due to an avian flu outbreak that killed millions of chickens in the Midwest. Buyers of lab-grown egg whites would never have to worry about these kinds of supply chain threats and price fluctuations.
But there are still many technical challenges that remain to be solved in order to scale-up the production of cultured hamburger meat. Post’s prototype burger was created by taking a small biopsy of muscle stem cells from a cow. These are the kinds of cells that grow quickly and know how to become muscles; in the body, their function is to repair damaged tissue. The stem cells are grown in a nourishing medium and over about a few weeks, they come together to form tiny, millimeter-thin muscle strips. Thousands of these strips are pieced together and mixed with fat to create a hamburger. The next step is to create a steak, which requires engineering actual blood vessel-like structures in order to grow meat that is thicker than the strips used to make the burger. Once it gets that thick, the cells need the vessels to deliver oxygen in order to stay alive and continue multiplying.
Post, who is raising money for his company and wants to hire 20 scientists, is now working to solve several problems associated with this process. For one, growing the stem cells requires fetal bovine serum, which is produced commercially by extracting the blood of fetuses inside cows sent to the slaughterhouse. Making an animal-free burger probably shouldn’t require dead cows as a key ingredient, so the company needs to find industrial-scale animal-free serum. Cells that live outside bodies are usually finicky about what they’ll eat, so this isn’t a trivial task, but it also already has been done for other kinds of stem cells that are more commonly cultured.
The other problem is fat. A burger without fat would be a very sad burger, and Post’s lab is now working to culture bovine fat in a lab, just like muscle tissue (the original taste-tested burger had no fat, one reason why it didn’t taste very good). Getting it right will take a little time, but he expects it will also be easy enough to do.
A bigger challenge lies ahead for Gefen, who is trying to grow a whole chicken dish at once—or at least longer muscle fiber segments, rather than tiny strips. The advantage is a better texture, which he says would more closely resemble “native meat” than Post’s method. But the challenge is growing cells quickly enough to be cost-effective. “You can’t wait 10 years to grow a centimeter of meat,” Gefen says. In his previous work, he has extracted cells from cancer tumors to promote quick growth, but he realizes no one wants cancer in their food. Instead, he is mapping out potential substitutes—tissue-growth stimulators that are known and safe—and working on bioreactor designs that will provide the most stimulating environment for the cells to grow.
New Harvest, founded in 2004 by one of the early pioneers of the cultured meat movement, wants to help solve challenges like these and expand the pool of people working on them by creating an open-source, standardized library of materials for the industry, similar to a seed bank. “Right now, muscle stem cell lines from cattle and chicken are few and far between,” says Gilonne d’Origny, New Harvest’s development director. “In the U.S., there’s only one place that has one, and in Europe, it’s pretty much Mark Post.” They imagine researchers or entrepreneurs being able to call up the library for cells or animal-free media for all kinds of animals, ranging from chicken to a rare breed of ox from Mongolia. “These would be the founding tools of the industry,” she says.
Post and Gefen think it is just a matter of several years before they are ready to sell cultured meat for a semi-reasonable price to early adopters, who might be willing to buy a more luxury product (Post estimates perhaps a $10 to $20 per burger price at the supermarket). But a luxury meat product isn’t going to supplant industrial agriculture, and a lot can go wrong before that happens. Post’s 3 million burgers a year for his first bioreactor is a lot of burgers—but it’s still an order of magnitude less than what McDonald’s alone sells. McDonald’s doesn’t break out how many burgers it sells a year, but one study cited a McDonald’s training manual from 2001 that gave the figure 75 burgers a second, which would work out to 2.3 billion a year, as a very rough approximation.
“Investment is nowhere where it needs to be,” says d’Origny. Though some companies, like Modern Meadow, have raised significant capital, she estimates that only in the range of $200 million has been spent on R&D so far. Aside from a number of motivated angel investors such as Brin and Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel (an investor in Modern Meadow), there hasn’t been much major private sector or government interest yet. More R&D at the academic level is needed, she says. The attention paid to Post’s prototype may actually not have helped in that regard: “It gave the idea that the science and technology are far more advanced than they actually are,” d’Origny says.
Although engineered meat is not quite ready for prime time, a huge amount of attention is being paid to how the public perceives it. A number of surveys and studies have already been done on this question. Uma Valeti, a founder of another very early-stage cultured meat company in California, believes the early adopter segment is significant: About 40% of people would be willing to try it, he says, which is much higher than most new food categories. But other surveys yield different results: 80% of people told Pew Research they wouldn’t want to eat lab-grown meat. Another survey found that only 9% outright rejected the idea, though two out of three were hesitant. It likely depends on who you are talking to: Younger, health-minded consumers are likely more open-minded than a traditional steak-and-potatoes retiree. Two researchers even went so far as to read hundreds of comments on online news articles to gauge public perception. The technology, they found, resonated strongly with some while others found it both “uncompelling and problematic,” with concerns about it seeming unnatural and risky appearing to be a “significant barrier.”
Pete Mattson, a long-time food industry consultant who has helped develop many new food products (the New York Times dubbed his firm “the Willy Wonka lab of food”), says that when a lab-engineered product finally hits the market, factors such as texture and smell will matter as much as taste. “If you approach someone with a bizarre smell, you’re dead,” he says. “You can probably do something that doesn’t taste quite as [good], if you sell it well.”
Branding will also be crucial. People are squeamish about biotechnology in their food—witness the GMO debate and concerns in the EU and the U.S. about meat from cloned livestock. But more often, it’s all in the name: In the last two years, pink slime, the infamously disgusting add-in to fast food burgers, has—at a time of high beef prices—made a comeback in grocery stores as “lean finely textured beef.”
Mattson says the naming challenge will be important. He compares it to how Obamacare has become the default name for the bureaucratic-sounding Affordable Care Act. “In the meat case, lab- or factory-meat is in the realm of socialized medicine,” he says. “You’ve got to get a better way of talking about it.” Post isn’t too worried, as long as people perceive the food as safe: “People eat hot dogs.”
Not everyone is convinced lab-made meat will be the solution to the problems of modern livestock agriculture. Animal advocates such as PETA, which sponsored an uncollected $1 million prize in 2008 to make a lab-made chicken, are definitely on board. But some people who are concerned with changing the larger industrial food system are more skeptical.
“In vitro meat is a symptom of the problem we’re facing, not a solution,” says Oron Catts, an artist and researcher at the University of Western Australia. “As long as the business model is the same, the problem will remain.” Catts, who more than a decade ago conducted some of the earliest experiments in the field by growing steak from frog stem cells, thinks lab-grown meat will likely stay a luxury product. It won’t feed the masses in China. “I have no issue with that. But if you tell me that you’re going to save the world, I’ll call you a hypocrite.”
Some environmentalists, such as Greenpeace, have also said that synthetic meat is a distraction from finding and funding more sustainable farming models, especially in the developing world. Although a large engineered meat industry would use far less land and water than farms, emit less methane, and pose less public health risk through antibiotic use and pathogen transmission, one theoretical study has calculated that other impacts—such as energy use—could be about the same as livestock agriculture, especially compared to farming pork or chicken.
“The development of a cultured meat industry will not address the problems of political power, infrastructure inadequacies, economic inequity, and geopolitics that underlie global hunger,” write two of the authors of that study, Carolyn Mattick and Brad Allenby. “Moreover, perhaps the growth of a bioengineered meat sector will undercut the economic prospects and cultural cohesion of some developing countries by allowing a new shift of economic potential from agrarian economies back to industrialized ones, thus exacerbating the hunger problem.”
That is assuming that cultured meat will spread in the developing world quickly enough to even make a dent in their meat consumption patterns before today’s livestock farming methods become entrenched and do hard-to-reverse damage to the environment. That seems like a difficult goal: Meat consumption in China has already quadrupled since the 1970s (mostly a lot of pork), and other regions, such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, are quickly following. Meanwhile, it will likely be decades before cultured meat is a global industry.
There are also other technological alternatives to growing meat from scratch. In parallel to the cultured meat startups, a host of new companies is looking to stem the global meat addiction with even more animal-realistic vegetarian alternatives than have ever been produced before. These companies have a much easier path to market and have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Examples include Hampton Creek (making fake egg products from pea protein), Beyond Meat (a fake meat and chicken company, which counts a former CEO of McDonald’s on its board), Impossible Foods (which has attracted money from Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures), New Wave Foods (making algae-based shrimp), and even a vegan caviar company brand. These startups are often using food science and even genetic sequencing technology to carefully find and construct the closest plant protein analogues to animal products.
Today there is a growing demand for plant-based substitute products, which grew 8% between 2010 and 2012, and not just from vegans and vegetarians. Many products from these startups, such as Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, are already making waves on the market. Still, they aren’t quite there yet. A Fast Company taste test of Beyond Meat’s burger did not go particularly well (for me, it fell in the uncanny valley of meat tastes).
If these alternatives continue to improve, they may obviate the need for cultured meat technology. “If at some point, if the meat substitutes become of a quality that—in a blind testing—you can no longer tell the difference, then there’s no place for cultured meat,” says Post. “That’s always going to be less efficient.”
Science fiction usually is about stretching our imagination, so it’s possible that 50 years from now, the idea of trying to faithfully reproduce steaks and burgers might seem retrograde: “It’s very possible we’re at the infancy of an immense variety of how we consume animal proteins,” says d’Origny.
Clara Foods, for example, is already imagining producing designer-performance-enhanced egg whites using genetically engineered microbes. Their protein properties would be tuned for their specific use—for example, extra-foam-forming egg whites could be used to make meringue pies. In the far future, we could each have meat-growing boxes in our kitchens—tuned to our particular tastes or nutritional needs—like some people brew craft beer at home today. Some futuristic thinkers imagine bringing extinct animals back for our consumption (think dodo nuggets), eating bacon by the foot, or even consuming human meat.
People both in the cellular agriculture and veggie tech worlds are optimistic about the future of meat. “It’s definitely a movement,” says Dominique Barnes, cofounder of New Wave Foods. “The general population is becoming more aware of their food, how it’s processed, and the impacts it has on the environment. The result of that is a demand for sustainable and healthy food. We’re hopefully at the beginning of it.”
All photos (unless otherwise noted): via Cultured Beef