Hamburger cultured from petri dish

By ELLE PFEFFER | September 12, 2013

In recent years environmentally conscious eaters have opted for diets that exclude meat like the vegetarian and even trendier vegan and raw food diets. But for those who just can’t give up their weekly cheeseburger, there may be another option that saves the environment some wear and tear: artificially grown meat.

Tasters got a glimpse of this possibility in London this August with the unveiling of the world’s first burger made from laboratory-cultured beef. Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, conducted the project in hopes of finding a way to curb the world’s current sustainability crisis in producing food.

Roni Neff, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees with Post’s underlying concern.

“Absolutely there is a crisis of sustainability in US meat production,” Neff wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “In the industrial meat production system, we use resources to produce crops (fossil energy, water, fertilizers, land area, etc.), and then rather than feeding those crops to humans, we feed them to animals, and add on an additional set of resources — fossil energy and water in particular. It’s extremely inefficient.”

Neff, who is the director of the Bloomberg School’s Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program, says it can take 15,000 liters of water to yield just one kilogram of beef. The process is also almost 20 times as energy intensive as growing plant protein, she says.

Food shoppers, however, largely overlook this resource consuming process. Americans eat over 37 million tons of meat each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And worldwide, demand for meat is only expected to grow. With Post’s alternative, the meat is grown in vitro. Stem cells are extracted from a live cow by biopsy and are stored in a growth medium — a soup-like nutrient formula — until muscle tissue forms. The tissue is then mixed with elastic collagen and anchored to a culture dish with Velcro where an electrical pulse is run through to make the muscles contract and get bulkier.

Neff, however, finds some faults with the sustainability of the process. She argues that the method is quite labor and resource intensive and actually requires energy inputs because of the electrical stimulation used for growth.

Additionally, Neff says that common practice in cell culture is to use blood from cow fetuses as the growth medium.

“While many who are concerned about animal welfare would still rather use this source of nutrients compared to the vast numbers of suffering animals in today’s system, it remains a concern,” she wrote.

However, Post has managed to get some animal activist organizations on board with his product, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Perhaps the most crucial question for the public is whether Post’s innovation actually makes a good burger. The London tasters said the patty’s texture was pleasing, but it did not quite taste like traditional beef. Post acknowledged that the product would not be ready for the market for at least 10 years, during which time some fat could be added to enhance the flavor.

The technology may be unattainable for the common consumer anyway as the first burger cost a whopping $400,000 to produce. Initial project funding came from Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. Post did not respond to request for comment. Public perception of the cost of traditionally grown meat may be skewed however, Neff says.

“While meat today is affordable for most in the US, this is partly because our farm and environmental policies allow this meat to be sold well below the true cost of production (feed grains are commonly sold below the cost of production, and the meat production firms are also able to externalize costs of the environmental harms of production).”

The idea of enhancing the lab-grown meat is problematic for Neff. Though unfamiliar with the specific product and its nutrients, Neff says the addition of fat and other additives like salt or preservatives could create the same health risks currently associated with meat.

She suggests that in order to be both sustainable and healthy, consumers should try shifting toward consider meats that are lower on the food chain – poultry, for example.

“I believe the number one priority should be to invest in behavioral/social science and economic research and interventions to better understand how to motivate reducing meat consumption,” Neff wrote. “It is not necessary or realistic to turn the population vegetarian, but given the above-described inputs, both natural and test tube meat consumption will likely be significantly more environmentally damaging than consuming many types of plant-based diets.”

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