Dutch scientists have created strips of muscle tissue using stem cells with the aim of producing the first lab-grown hamburger later this year.
The aim of the research is to develop a more efficient way of producing meat than rearing animals.
Prof. Mark Post said at a major science meeting in Canada that synthetic meat could reduce the environmental footprint of meat by up to 60%.
“We would gain a tremendous amount in terms of resources,” Prof. Mark Post said.
His group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2 cm long, 1cm wide and about 1 mm thick.
They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn.
The cost of producing the hamburger will be $300,000, but Prof. Mark Post says that once the principle has been demonstrated, production techniques will be improved and costs will come down.
“The reason we are doing this is not to show a viable product but to show that in reality we can do this,” he said.
“From then on, we need to spend a whole lot of work and money to make the process efficient and then cost effective.”
So why use such high tech methods to produce meat when livestock production methods have done the job effectively for thousands of years?
It is because most food scientists believe that current methods of food production are unsustainable.
Some estimate that food production will have to double within the next 50 years to meet the requirements of a growing population. During this period, climate change, water shortages and greater urbanization will make it more difficult to produce food.
Prof. Sean Smukler from the University of British Columbia said keeping pace with demand for meat from Asia and Africa will be particularly hard as demand from these regions will shoot up as living standards rise. He thinks that lab grown meat could be a good solution.
“It will help reduce land pressures,” he said.
“Anything that stops more wild land being converted to agricultural land is a good thing. We’re already reaching a critical point in availability of arable land,” he said.
Lab-grown meat could eventually become more efficient than producing meat the old fashioned way, according to Prof. Mark Post. Currently, 100g of vegetable protein has to be fed to pigs or cows to produce 15 g of animal protein, an efficiency of 15%. He believes that synthetic meat could be produced with an equivalent energy efficiency of 50%.
So what is the synthetic burger likely to taste like?
“In the beginning it will taste bland,” says Prof. Mark Post.
“I think we will need to work on the flavor separately by trying to figure out which components of the meat actually produce the taste and analyze what the composition of the strip is and whether we can change that.”
Prof. Mark Post also said that if the technology took off, it would reduce the number of animals that were factory farmed and slaughtered.
But Dr. David Steele, who is president of Earthsave Canada, said that the same benefits could be achieved if people ate less meat.
“While I do think that there are definite environmental and animal welfare advantages of this high-tech approach over factory farming, especially, it is pretty clear to me that plant-based alternatives… have substantial environmental and probably animal welfare advantages over synthetic meat,” he said.
Dr. David Steele, who is also a molecular biologist, said he was also concerned that unhealthily high levels of antibiotics and antifungal chemicals would be needed to stop the synthetic meat from rotting.