The new American hamburger…?

Photo by Victoria Henderson via Flickr.

Photo by Vic­toria Hen­derson via Flickr.

Twenty six bil­lion pounds. That’s roughly how much beef Amer­i­cans con­sume each year. We get it from some 33 mil­lion cows that are largely raised in cen­tral­ized, indus­trial feed oper­a­tions that col­lec­tively use more energy, water, and land per calorie pro­duced than any other food group out there.

So when I heard the news of the lab-​​grown beef the other day, I was intrigued. With a bit more work to make it tastier and cheaper, the syn­thetic meat could one day dis­place con­cen­trated animal feedlot oper­a­tions, or CAFOs. The turn would mean good things for cows, the envi­ron­ment, and the world’s rapidly growing number of mouths to feed.

North­eastern pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering Shashi Murthy knows a thing or two about growing tissue in the lab. Over the last decade he’s been working to iso­late undif­fer­en­ti­ated stem cells from var­ious tissue types that are then allowed to grow and pro­lif­erate to form new tissue. The process is not simple, Murthy explained. It involves sev­eral steps with very picky reagents, which require pre­cise envi­ron­mental con­di­tions, such as tem­per­a­ture and oxygen levels.

If you were to work to try to com­mer­cialize that, I can easily imagine the whole process would be far more expen­sive than just raising cows,” he said. If the cur­rent process were to be scaled up, it would cost about $30 a pound, according to the New York Times. Fur­ther, due to agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies, con­ven­tion­ally raised beef is arti­fi­cially inex­pen­sive, said phi­los­ophy pro­fessor Ron San­dler. Syn­thetic beef likely can’t com­pete with that.

But, says civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew Eck­elman, what you spend in dol­lars could be over­come by the eco­log­ical improve­ments of switching away from CAFOs, which are mas­sively inef­fi­cient in their use of resources. After all, the land on which we depend has sig­nif­i­cant, inherent value of its own. And not only that, he con­tinued, there are also sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic and envi­ron­mental dam­ages asso­ci­ated with pol­lu­tion from CAFOs, over­grazing, and defor­esta­tion to create pas­ture land.

Taste aside, I think this is a promising devel­op­ment in gen­eral,” said Eck­elman, whose chief spe­cialty is ana­lyzing the envi­ron­mental costs and ben­e­fits of var­ious prod­ucts from pro­duc­tion to dis­posal. One such study pub­lished by researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford and the Uni­ver­sity of Ams­terdam “makes a com­pelling case for reduced envi­ron­mental impacts,” said Eckelman.

Of course, that study was spon­sored by New Har­vest, a non­profit research orga­ni­za­tion whose very mis­sion is to pro­mote alter­na­tive sources of meat. Also, since the large-​​scale syn­thetic meat industry doesn’t even exist yet, the study had to be based on “many assump­tions” that have “high uncer­tainty,” according to its authors.

What San­dler doesn’t under­stand is why we’re spending oodles of money on finding new ways to make meat when “there’s a really easy, simple, effi­cient, proven, avail­able solu­tion” already out there for the problem of the world’s seven bil­lion hungry humans. “It’s much easier, it’s much less expen­sive, it requires no new tech­nology, it’s per­fectly healthy, and it’s yummy.” Eat less meat. He’s not saying we all have to become her­bi­vores, but if we each reduced our meat con­sump­tion by a third, we’d likely see the same envi­ron­mental sav­ings reaped by syn­thetic meat.

But given our pop­u­la­tion and the pro­jected shift toward high-​​protein diets in many parts of the world,” Eck­elman argued, “it seems likely that there will be large increases in indus­trial meat pro­duc­tion.” If that hap­pens, then syn­thetic meat would be a great solution…if it could dis­place the cur­rent cen­tral­ized meat industry—which is tastier and cheaper.

Even though Amer­ican meat con­sump­tion is stag­ger­ingly high, we have been slowing down on our red meat rave in recent decades, according to the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. San­dler thinks this is in part due to a growing con­cern for where our food comes from and what goes into making it. The loca­vore, real, and slow food move­ments have been pow­erful enough to coax McDon­alds, Burger King, and Wendy’s into sending lean finely tex­tured beef (also lov­ingly known as “pink slime”) the way of the dodo bird. “And that’s actu­ally from a cow,” he said.

If people are having trouble with the idea of finely tex­tured beef because it doesn’t fit their con­cep­tion of what meat’s sup­posed to be like,” San­dler con­tinued, “maybe that’s a good indi­ca­tion of the chal­lenges that syn­thetic meat is going to have being accepted by the market.”

And in the end, isn’t that what this whole con­ver­sa­tion really comes down to?

With the pop­u­la­tion steadily rising, we are going to need some way to feed our­selves. We can’t all live off grass fed beef; there just isn’t enough planet to sup­port that many cows. But out­side of gov­ern­ment food rations, any changes in the way we eat are going to be deter­mined by what we buy. Until researchers can make syn­thetic meat that tastes good and is not pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive, all the other ben­e­fits of animal wel­fare, feeding the hungry, and saving the planet, prob­ably won’t get too far.

Oh, and by the way, according to Murthy, the animal wel­fare argu­ment is sort of moot anyway: A main ingre­dient in stan­dard cell cul­ture media, which the cells need to grow in a petri dish, is fetal bovine serum—the liquid part of calf’s blood.