In 2013, the first lab-grown beef burger was revealed to the public and, according to reviewers, didn’t taste too great. Created by Dutch researcher Mark Post using bovine stem cells, the meat was cultivated in two years at a whopping estimated cost of $375,000.
In 2018, startups and non-profit organizations are looking for less costly and more efficient ways to produce “cultured meat,” also called “synthetic” and “in vitro” meat. Companies like Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat aim to put “clean meat” – from hot dogs to meatballs – in stores by 2022.
With growing awareness of the meat industry’s maltreatment of animals and negative environmental impacts, “ethical eating” is in higher demand than ever. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock makes up about 15 percent of man-produced greenhouse gas emissions.
The internet has become an indispensable aid for spreading information on the subject, with documentaries such as Food, Inc. going viral. Increased access to information allows consumers to know more about what their food is and where it comes from.
But where does cultured meat come from? It’s the result of what’s called “cellular agriculture”: Scientists grow muscle cells into “muscle-like fibers” with the use of a nutrient serum. The general concept isn’t new – cellular agriculture is similar to “cell culture” methods explored in the early 1900s.
It’s the post-modern possibilities that are enticing. Many theorize that synthetic meat companies will be able to combine characteristics of various meats, optimizing protein, fat and nutrient levels to better consumer health. Others imagine that cells from rare or endangered animals could be grown into fake food.
The complexity of creating synthetic meat lies largely in cost. Companies hoping to sell commercially have to think about upscaling, which requires expensive, high-tech bioreactors. These are tanks as large as 20,000 liters that need to be designed specifically for meat cells in order to provide the necessary conditions for growth.
“The important point is that no one has done this at scale yet,” said Eitan Fischer, director of Cellular Agriculture at Hampton Creek, to Gizmodo. “[Existing cost estimates] are based on… processes that aren’t just unsustainable, but also not an accurate representation.”
And even when it gets on store shelves, Post predicts that cultured meat products will still be “somewhat expensive” in comparison to real meat.
Government regulation is yet another hurdle – synthetic meat doesn’t quite fit into the ruleset of the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the Food and Drug Administration.
“From my understanding, the USDA regulations are based on food from animal slaughter, so [they don’t] make sense for these products,” said Nicole Negowetti of the Good Food Institute to Science Magazine.
With commercial consumption of red meat in the U.S. reaching over 45 billion pounds in 2015, it’s hard to imagine cultured meat will cause a cultural shift. Yet the intent behind the future food is welcomed by many, and with exponentially advancing technology, it may be here sooner than we think.