On Aug. 5, 2013, Mark Post went out to grab a hamburger. This was no drive-through Big Mac. Rather, Post bit into his $325,000 burger in front of an invitation-only crowd of journalists, chefs, and food enthusiasts in the heart of London.
The strangest part wasn’t the cost or the crowd but the meat. Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, grew the burger himself. Not from a cow on his farm, mind you, but from a bovine stem-cell in a petri dish in his lab. Post’s research, partially funded by Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, has the potential to upend conventional wisdom on the environmental, animal welfare, and health impacts of meat eating.
Ironically enough, I first met Post at a meeting of some of the world’s largest hog producers. Without any apparent fear or trepidation, he took the stage in front of several hundred hog farmers and meat processors and told them their business was causing undue animal suffering and environmental harm.
No matter the news on health and environmental outcomes, most people are still going to want to eat a burger. Post’s concerns are widely reflected in popular culture. For example, the 2014 documentary film Cowspiracy argues that meat eating is single greatest environmental threat to the planet. Bill Maher, comedian and host of an HBO talk show bearing his name, wrote, “If you care about the planet, it’s actually better to eat a salad in a Hummer than a cheeseburger in a Prius.” James McWilliams, in an op-ed in the New York Times, perhaps summed up the prevailing view best when he wrote: “The industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.” McWilliams argues that modern livestock agriculture is so damaging that the only moral solution is to give up eating meat entirely.
Post has taken a different tack–one that has sometimes put him at odds with vegetarian advocacy groups. Rather than selling PETA’s tax meat tote bags or cajoling and chastising people for eating meat, he recognizes that most people like to eat a good steak. Only about 5% of the U.S. population claims to be vegetarian or vegan, and 84% of the people who are vegetarians and vegans eventually go back to eating meat. It seems that we are biologically wired to want to eat meat. That bite of filet mignon is a protein-packed, nutrient-dense morsel of tasty goodness. Anthropology shows that humans have probably eaten meat since the beginning, and the some biologists believe that meat consumption, and the ability to increase nutrient content through cooking meat, played a role in increasing our brain size, making us into the species we are today.
No matter the news on health and environmental outcomes, most people are still going to want to eat a burger. So why not try to make sure that the meat we do eat has as little environmental impact as possible?
From a small number of donor animals, we can ultimately get our burgers, chops, and chicken tenders without harm to the cows, pigs, or chickens. Posts’s approach yields the bacon and burgers we love without the hog or cow. All animals have stem cells living in their muscles. These cells are capable of regenerating muscle cells for the animal. They’re also capable of creating muscle cells outside the animal. The trick is to harvest stem cells from the muscle of a live cow or pig and turn them loose in the right environment in a lab. Stem cells proliferate quickly. A single stem cell can generate a hundred trillion cells of meat. So, from a small number of donor animals (many millions fewer than currently exist to satisfy our appetites), we can ultimately get our burgers, chops, and chicken tenders without harm to the cows, pigs, or chickens. We no longer have to kill the geese to get the golden eggs.
Once in the lab and given a suitable environment, the stem cells naturally form into muscles. But just because muscle cells have formed, that doesn’t mean we have something ready to eat. We all have muscles, but they vary in shape and size. I’ve got a couple scrawny biceps that pale in comparison to the guns on Arnold Schwarzenegger. How did Schwarzenegger’s arms get so big? No doubt genetics played a role, but he’s also spent many, many more hours in the gym than me. To build protein and muscle size, exercise is needed. Post and his team attach the muscle cells to each other and to a proverbial petri dish in a way that creates exercise-like tension. The result is muscle fiber (each of which contains around 1.5 million cells). Once these muscle fibers develop, about ten thousand of them are harvested to create a burger.
To really mimic the taste of a burger, fat and connective tissue are needed. This isn’t a soybean patty crafted to look like a hamburger. It is a real meat burger produced by the same cells doing the work in a real cow. Still, when Post talked about his new burger, he said it was a bit dry. That shouldn’t be too surprising, because it was 100% lean and 0% fat. To really mimic the taste of a burger, fat and connective tissue are needed. These fats could come from vegetable sources (like canola or corn oil), or Post might just grow it too. He’s now got a few petri dishes of animal fat growing to try to add a little flavor to his next lab-grown lunch. Fat stem cells from livestock can be utilized in much the same way as muscle stem cells, although they’re a bit trickier to deal with because they’re more flexible than muscle stem cells and must be coaxed into only producing fat.
Perhaps surprisingly, not all vegetarians and animal advocacy groups are supporters of Post’s work. For one, they don’t like the fact that stem cells must be extracted from a live animal. But if choice is between a few thousand animals versus many millions of animals emitting carbon, leaving waste in waterways, and gobbling up valuable resources that we humans might use, the answer seems clear.
Critics also point to the fact that lab-grown meat isn’t a free lunch. The stem cells have to eat something to grow. Right now, the cells grow in a medium that relies on animal-based serum. However, Post and others are devising non-animal based feed stock for the muscles.
We might one day have a home-grown burger with our home-brewed lager. The more relevant question in this case is whether lab-grown meat uses more or less corn, and creates more or less environmental problems, than does animal-grown meat. Given current technology, the answer isn’t yet clear. Post projects that if his current system were scaled up, he could produce a pound of lab grown meat for about $30. There are some people in niche markets willing to pay that much for a burger, but it’s a far cry from today’s prices. In 2014 (a record high year for beef prices), the average price of hamburger in the United States was only about $4 per pound. There are no doubt externalities in beef production, but it’s hard to imagine they’re 650% more than the current price of a burger. Post has a ways to go if he’s to compete with the cow.
But along with competitors like the US.-based firm Modern Meadow, Post is not giving up. As Post invests more time in his project, and the technology improves and science develops, the price of lab grown meat will fall. And, if Post and his fellow scientists can engineer a burger with a healthier fat profile in a way that is friendlier to animals, many of us might even be willing to pay a premium for it.
Post has a few more tricks up his sleeve that might entice adventuresome eaters. If stem cells from cows can grow a hamburger, why not take stem cells from a rhino and create a rhino-burger? Or mix a few stem cells from a giraffe or rabbit to create a truly unique delicacy! More seriously, Post has in mind a table-top meat grower that may one day grace the counters of our kitchens. We might one day have a home-grown burger with our home-brewed lager.
When it was finally my turn to get up to address the meeting of pork producers, I could see that a few attendees were reeling from Post’s remarks. I told them the same thing I tell my cattle feeding buddies: if you’re threatened by the prospect of lab grown meat, now’s the time to invest.
This piece is adapted from Jayson Lusk’s Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.