900 words about the Future of Meat

By Ben Butcher

In a West London studio on a summer day in 2013, the future of meat was presented to a small group of journalists, scientists and food critics seated around a kitchen. All eyes were fixed on a small, $330,00 burger patty gently simmering in pan.

Mark Post, a Dutch physiologist, harvested cow stems cells and multiplied them until they numbered in the tens of billions. Stem cells are effectively blank slates, and by manipulating the chemical environment, stem cells can be transformed into any type of cell: blood cell, heart cell, brain cell, you name it. Scientists have been manipulating human stem cells for years to replace damaged cells throughout the body.  Post used this process to create muscle and fat fibers that he combined to form the world’s first laboratory-grown burger.  

Post’s burger received several cosmetic treatments, namely red beet juice and saffron to get the look and flavor just right. But when both food critics took a bite, neither spat it out in disgust. They nodded in agreement: That was the texture of a beef burger, but maybe it could use a little ketchup.

Remember pictures of those early computers that took up entire rooms? In 2013, that’s where we were in the process of developing laboratory meat. The methods were expensive and time-consuming. In the three years since, the technology behind lab meat production changed considerably. Producing lab meat that is unrecognizable from animal meat in both taste and texture, while also being cheap and cost effective, is now a question of when not if.

Domesticating animals changed the way our ancestors interacted with the world around them. Laboratory meat has the potential to thoroughly alter the way this generation structures our world.

The current meat production framework — raise, slaughter, sell — has remained fundamentally unchanged since the beginning of animal domestication. Now imagine a future in which a summer barbecue does not require vast pastures, tons of animal feed and troughs of water. This future, one that is rapidly becoming a reality, would result in ground-shaking disruptions across all levels of agriculture.

Many farmers currently nurturing feed and livestock are not likely to switch careers and become lab technicians. While the first reaction from the agriculture industry might be to resist this new technology, any resistance is dangerously short-sighted.

Look at it this way: Cigarettes have always caused cancer. It took a coordinated and comprehensive public health movement to convince the public of the dangers of tobacco products.  While meat doesn’t cause cancer (well, probably not), the current process that turns a cow into burger has disastrous consequences.

Raising animals for slaughter is inefficient. Cows require 100 grams of vegetable protein to produce just 15 grams of animal protein fit for human consumption. Furthermore,  60 percent of the total agricultural land in the world is used directly for animal pasture or indirectly to grow animal feed. Here’s the kicker: Just two percent of global calories consumed by humans come from beef. It’s not just inefficient. Wasting so much land on such an insignificant calorie source carries grave implications for our environment.

Carbon emissions, a large aspect of global climate change, is tied to the meat industry. Forests across the world are leveled to create new pastures for more animals. Controlled burns reduce complex ecosystems to grasslands. In Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, millions of acres of the Amazon Rainforest have been destroyed. From the ashes, 80 percent of former rainforest is being turned into pasture. Carbon-eating and oxygen-producing trees are being replaced by cows that are literally farting the planet to death.

OK, maybe not that extreme. But methane from cow flatulence alone does amount to two percent of total emissions while the entire livestock sector adds up to 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the clear environmental consequences, there are still important technological hurdles that have to be cleared before lab meat can compete. Primarily the cost and speed of production. Memphis Meats, a Silicon Valley startup, is one company that has promised to tackle these challenges and bring lab-grown meat to the market.

Memphis Meats took the process of cell-layering from Post’s research and streamlined it, reducing the cost from $330,000 for a lab-burger to $18,000 per pound of lab-produced beef. Along with the cost decrease, the company claims it can grow and harvest its meat in three weeks.

These companies, Memphis Meats included, have secured millions of dollars from venture-capital investors, who see potential and are betting big on the future of lab meat. While some are concerned that many consumers might reject the concept of test-tube meat, many investors are encouraged by the growing movement demanding transparency surrounding antibiotics or GMOs in meat. When it comes to health and safety, a sterile laboratory environment knocks out even the cleanest slaughterhouse.

I’m not ending with a moral condemnation of all meat-eaters, or a Sarah McLachlan montage of sad farm animals (PETA takes care of that for me). While I look forward to the day I can sink my teeth into a juicy burger divorced from deforestation, animal suffering or climate changing greenhouse gases. I’m not running out and sinking a semester of college tuition into a $18,000 meatball. I am happy enough to wait until the day, in the not-too-distant future,  I’ll enjoy a barbecue with that satisfaction that no meat on the grill ever mooed.

Ben Butcher is a junior studying International Affairs and Economics at The George Washington University. He is spending the year abroad at the London School of Economics where he will study the intersection of international relations and global trade. Say hi @bennbutch.

You can read all of Ben’s Hundreds of Words articles here

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