Cultured Meat: The Burger of the Future

No, we’re not talking about meat that’s been to the ballet.

Will we grown meat in a lab in the future?

Did you ever read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood? It’s a story of a dystopian future in which people surf "the Net" 24/7, pop massive numbers of pills, and eat chicken breasts grown without animals called “ChickieNobs.” Science fiction, right?

Or is it?

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, meat created by science is on its way. Sci-fi no longer, the first hamburger was grown in a lab in 2012. Milk no longer needs to come from a cow, instead it’s created from yeast and no animals are involved. Have you visited leather shops in Italy? How about eliminating the animal from your leather belt entirely?

A few weeks ago, I attended the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, TX for work. At the conference, Isha Datar, the Executive Director of New Harvest gave an (ironically-timed) post-lunch keynote titled “The Future of Food.”

Woe to those who thought this session would be about pasture-raised cows, eliminating factory farming, and the next superfood! Instead, Datar spoke about her non-profit organization which is supporting and promoting research on turning lab-grown meat into an everyday reality. And it’s working.

When will we eat chicken thighs grown without the chicken?

When will we eat chicken thighs grown without the chicken?

“Have you tasted any of the cultured meat you’re currently supporting?” –The $300,000 question from the audience, as that was the sum cost of the first culture-grown burger.

Datar has, and thinks the first version had room for improvement. The tissue grown so far was muscle tissue. Talk about lean! With no fat incorporated into the burger, it has a ways to go to reach a perfect texture and flavor. For cultured meat to be successful commercially, it has to be safe and it has to taste good. Oh, and the price needs to come down as well.

So what’s the current reaction to eating meat grown in a lab? Close your eyes for 10 seconds and try to imagine your own response.

Fascination, fear, disgust, excitement. There’s an ick factor here. I can see how the conversation might go: “Do you want to try this meat grown in a molecular biology lab?”

Cheese can be made with vegetarian rennet

“No way, ewww, that’s gross.” 

But why?

Our scientific knowledge is what brought us yogurt, cheese, and insulin. We are hypocritical if we accept some of the bounty of biology and chemistry, but aren’t willing to try out the next discovery or invention.

Cheese, originally discovered from milk stored in the stomachs of animals, is made using rennet. Rennet can be created microbially (and in other ways) so it is animal-free, and so cheese can be vegetarian. That’s absolutely a lab-food. Is it widely accepted because it’s not the flesh of an animal? Because no one knows how cheese is made? Or is it so wide-spread and ubiquitous that we’ve overcome any ick factor?

People (yes, myself included) love the idea of pastoral fields, green vegetables growing in beautiful rows, and idyllic red barns. Those images sell, even when they don’t depict what the actual farm looks like. And what could be further from an oak-filled pasture with happy pigs running around? A chicken breast grown in a petri dish by scientists wearing white coats and goggles.

Datar finished her talk with her vision of meat-growers of the future as artists. She brilliantly likened meat growing to brewing beer. Science mixed with artistry, in a relaxed, social environment. And people could come and take tours. Beer is brewed in a brewery, wine made in a winery, bread baked in a bakery, and meat of the future grown in a “carnery.”

When will we eat rabbit meat without the rabbit?

When will we eat rabbit meat without the rabbit?

As for me, I love this idea. What a fascinating and innovative way to reduce our drain on the environment and protect against animal-borne diseases. Let’s put our brilliant science minds to use disrupting the meat industry. Step one, talk about this in order to reach step two, fund more research, and then step three, bring this to market.

So when it’s time to eat fried chicken grown with no animal, whether we’re calling them ChickieNobs or anything else, sign me up.


Further reading on the connection between Oryx and Crake and cultured meat can be found here.