It sounds like science fiction, but your local supermarket might start selling lab-grown meat within a decade.
Mark Post remembers the moment he first tasted his lab-grown meat.
“It was dry, there was no fat in it yet, so it wasn’t perfect. But it tasted meaty.”
The texture was meat-like too.
In 2013, the Dutch scientist unveiled the world’s first lab-grown beef burger at a flashy press event in London.
It cost $400,000 to produce, but now there are claims lab-grown meat will make it onto the market within a few years.
“Still not on a very large scale — more for restaurants and speciality stores — but in supermarkets a couple of years later,” Professor Post says.
His lab at Maastricht University has spun out a business called Mosa Meat in an effort to realise that timeline and attract venture capital.
Meanwhile, a couple of Silicon Valley start-ups have also entered the fray with missionary zeal and their own products in the making.
They include plant-based food company Hampton Creek, founded by a Humane Society executive, and Memphis Meats, started by a cardiologist and a stem cell scientist.
Big names like Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Google’s Sergey Brin are backing the cause with big bucks too.
“You have people coming from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of ideas about what an emerging technology might be, and they are investing in it with their hopes and fears,” says Dr Ben Wurgaft, a Boston-based anthropologist studying the emerging industry and the history of cultured meat.
Feed the world, reduce carbon footprint
Professor Post is no scientific maverick.
He has a career specialising in vascular biology and tissue engineering, developing bypass grafts to replace blocked blood vessels in patients with coronary heart disease.
But he was convinced he should use his skills to engineer meat by Dutch entrepreneur Willem Van Eelen.
Mr Eelen served in World War II, and was captured by the Japanese.
During his time as a prisoner of war in Indonesia, Mr Eelen experienced two things: terrible hunger, which he said nearly killed him, and the mistreatment of animals.
As a result, he became determined to find a way to feed the world’s population without harming animals.
“He was a very passionate and charismatic guy. I would really call it an obsession, but a good one,” says Professor Post, who continued the project after Mr Eelan died in 2015.
Many campaigners for cultured meat and cellular agriculture are driven by animal welfare concerns and a desire to see an end to factory farming.
But in a world where the demand for meat is growing, convincing people to convert en masse to vegetarianism is a pipe dream.
His main concerns are the environmental impacts and food security issues associated with current levels of consumption.
About 15 per cent of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock.
“There is no way we will reach the Paris [climate change agreement] directives if we continue with business as usual,” he says.
“One way or another we have to do something. We don’t really have an option.”
Cultured meat is seen as one fix for this meat-lover’s dilemma.
In 2011, an Oxford study estimated cultured meat production could involve up to 95 per cent fewer global greenhouse gas emissions, 98 per cent less land use and up to half as much energy.
The science of growing meat
The process starts with taking a small biopsy from a cow to harvest stem cells from muscle tissue.
“Our bodies have stem cells just sitting there waiting to repair tissue,” Professor Post says.
“If our muscle gets injured, these stem cells start to proliferate and form muscle tissue … instead of scar tissue. We are basically using that mechanism to create muscle tissue outside of the body.”
The extracted stem cells are then encouraged to proliferate in a nutrient rich, blood-infused broth.
Placed in a collagen gel, muscle cells have a unique ability to self organise into muscle fibre — contracting, maturing, strengthening and thickening over a few weeks.
Combine 10,000 of these muscle fibres, massage them with some salt, add breadcrumbs, spices — and dinner’s served — you have a hamburger.
Add fat tissue, and you have something that tastes even more like the meat you’d carve off a cow to serve with chips and salad.
In the four years since their prototype was made public, Professor Post’s team have been hard at work.
“We have transformed the culture system into something that can be scaled [up for industry], we have improved the protein quality, and perhaps most importantly, we have created fat tissue.”
Fat helps make meat tasty, and taste matters in this quest. A lot.
Scaling it up
Developing a prototype beef burger is one challenge, scaling up production to meet population demand will be quite another.
“The question on everybody’s mind is whether the technology will turn out to be viable,” Dr Wurgaft says.
“Saying things will be brought up to scale is sometimes a kind of magic wand that scientists wave as if scale is merely an engineering problem.”
Professor Post is more confident. He says the arrangement will resemble a beer brewery, but for stem cells not hops and barley. Robotic systems would be used to combine the muscle fibres and make the burger patties.
“Our calculations show that with a 25,000-litre bioreactor, the size of a room, you can grow meat for about 10,000 Europeans for an entire year,” he says.
If lab-grown meat takes off, what happens to farmers?
Professor Post believes livestock farmers will have time to switch to other types of production, including crops needed to feed the bioreactors used to make cultured meat.
“Farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs, they will do whatever they can do to attract value from their land,” he says.
But his views are more inclusive than others.
“Many people in the cultured meat world insist that they don’t want to take anything away from small farmers. Others … want to get rid of animal agriculture altogether,” Dr Wurgaft says.
The yuck factor: So, would you eat it?
If and when lab-grown meat lands on supermarket shelves, it remains to be seen whether people will buy and try it.
ABC Science asked if you’d be game, and surprisingly, many of you were enthusiastic about the prospect — both meat eaters and vegetarians.
Hell yeah! I love meat, but the vegans have a point when it comes to animal cruelty. This eliminates the issue! — David Wally
I hope they start making dog food with this product. As a vegetarian I fell terrible feeding my dog meat … but since she is a dog, I don’t want to deprive her either. *dilemma* — Mj Tyler
Yes!! As a vegetarian who still craves for steak, fried chicken and sushi, I’ve been waiting since I first heard about it years ago. — Tan Szening
This doesn’t surprise Matti Wilks.
A vegetarian since birth, she’s completing a PhD on moral development.
Ms Wilks and Professor Clive Phillips recently published the results of an internet survey of more than 600 Americans about their attitudes towards cultured meat.
“We were pleasantly surprised. 65 per cent of people said they would probably or definitely try it, and only 8 per cent definitely wouldn’t,” she says.
They found men and meat eaters were slightly more open to trying it, whereas vegetarians saw more benefits in its production but were less likely to try it. The more meat people ate, the less convinced they were by the ethical merit of cultured meat as an alternative.
The main barriers people mentioned included perceptions of un-naturalness, price, concerns about health and safety, and the impact on farmers.
Ms Wilks believes a subset of people will remain resolutely opposed in principle to eating lab-grown meat.
“The group of people who are having this visceral reaction: ‘It’s not natural and it’s wrong’,” she says.
Professor Post believes lab-grown meat will be have a different cultural value to traditional meat.
“It will be made in a different way. It will not bring up associations with animals, pastures, campfires, cowboys, or with killing animals,” he says.
“Even if it is technically exactly the same, it will be a slightly different product culturally.