Imagine walking down the grocery store aisle, picking out your ground beef and chicken for the week, only to find that the meat section looks slightly different. Instead of filled with packages labeled "organic” and "free range," everything you reach for is "lab-grown."
This may sound like a detail lifted from some dystopian sci-fi novel, but because of companies like Memphis Meats -- which is pioneering the technique of growing "cultured" meat from stem cells harvested from cows, pigs, and chickens -- we may be eating lab-grown burgers and bacon in as soon as the next five years.
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Lab-grown meat has been in the works for a while now
In 2013, a Dutch team led by Mark Post of Maastricht University introduced the world to the first "in-vitro" beef burger, produced in a petri dish using stem cells from cow shoulder muscles. At a cost of $325,000 -- paid for by Google's co-founder Sergey Brin -- it was by far the priciest 5oz burger patty in history.
More importantly, it made the case for a future in which we might never have to weigh issues like animal welfare and environmental impact before grilling up a juicy steak. Evidently, it didn't taste all that great, but it encouraged the scientists at Memphis Meats to go all-in in an effort to scale the technology to a point where us non-billionaires will be able to afford it.
Lab-grown meat is insanely more sustainable than traditional farm-raised
It's totally normal to feel a little weirded out about feasting on grilled meat that was grown in an incubator. But frankly, it's no more unnerving than tearing into the flesh of a creature that was walking around just days before. Even if you're not bothered by the moral issues associated with conventional large-scale animal agriculture, a huge benefit of growing meat in labs is that it's much better for the environment.
As the global population continues to spin out of control, producing enough meat to meet demand will ultimately be untenable. For one, right now the United Nations estimates that roughly one-third of the world's grain goes towards animal agriculture, and about one quarter of the world's land is used for grazing. Add to that the fact that it takes 23 calories of feed to produce just one calorie of beef, and you start to understand what a game-changer this will be. As the technology is perfected, we'd be able to cut down on the transportation costs (and the subsequent toll on the environment) by setting up meat-growing facilities all over the country and the world.
It's also (potentially) much healthier
Spoiler alert: Most of the "traditional" meat we eat today comes from animals in feedlots who've been treated like shit, injected with an entire arsenal of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones to keep them as healthy and bulked up as possible until the moment they hit the slaughterhouse. There's plenty of reason to believe those types of additives are bad for our bodies. Since Memphis Meats will be growing its meat in sterile labs, it's said publicly that it won't use antibiotics or growth hormones in its process. Even better, since it'll be growing things from the ground up, it'll be able to remove some of the more harmful elements found in traditional meat, including heme iron and saturated fat, which have been associated with increased risk of certain cancers and stroke & heart disease, respectively.
Before all you vegetarians start tossing out your stockpiles of Tofurkey hot dogs, there's a catch. At the moment, the source cells for lab-grown meat can be harvested from animals without slaughtering them, but a critical component to accelerating the culturing process -- fetal bovine serum -- must be drawn from unborn calves. Memphis Meats' co-founder and CEO Uma Valeti acknowledged they're hard at work finding a plant-based alternative that would eliminate the need for it, and have made significant progress already: "Our goal is to entirely abstract the animal from the meat production process, and we are on track to meet that goal."
Scaling the technology is a huge undertaking
"The biggest hurdle is reducing the cost of production," says Valeti. And while it's still crazy-expensive to produce a single pound of meat, he says that since they've started their research, the price of production has fallen by one hundredfold. Still, it's going to take big money and a whole lot more research to get this stuff stocked at Whole Foods. "Our goal is to get products in grocery stores within the next five years, contingent on funding," says Valeti. To jumpstart the effort, the company recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise some capital, and as of this writing it's reached nearly half of the $100,000 goal.
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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist and holding out hope lab-grown bacon is just as delicious as the real thing.