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Cultured Beef: Do We Really Need a $380,000 Burger Grown in Petri Dishes?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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David Parry / PA Wire

For the first time, the public has been treated to the spectacle of lab-grown meat cooked and eaten via live Webcast. Backed by Google billionaire Sergey Brin, Dutch tissue engineer Mark Post unveiled his “cultured beef” at a press event on August 5, answering the question posed by a 2011 Scientific American feature: “When Will Scientists Grow Meat in a Petri Dish?”

The verdict? “It is close to meat,” said nutrition scientist Hanni Rutzler. “It is not that juicy.” But British chef Richard McGeowan said the lack of fat didn’t affect his cooking of the five ounces of minced “meat” in a frying pan, thanks to lots of butter.

Fat is just one of the fatal flaws of this lab-grown meat. Here’s how it works in a handy infographic from our 2011 feature:


In addition to a lack of fat with the meat (tissue biologists just haven’t gotten that union down yet), the in vitro meat features heavy antibiotic use to keep the cells alive and growth on serum from the blood of unborn cows gathered from slaughterhouses (as well as the less gruesome sugars, proteins and fatty acids). As synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis noted in a blog critique in 2012: “Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology.”

Then the meat requires “exercise” on a scaffold. There are questions about its nutritional value as well, such as how much iron it might contain compared with traditional meat. The lab meat has to be colored red after all, by adding beet juice because it is composed of 20,000 or so thin strips of muscle cells rather than the complicated mélange of muscle, fat, blood vessels and bone found in meat from an animal.

Despite all this, the lab beef is being cultured (and feted) because of its potential to reduce the environmental impacts of the human taste for meat. As Post notes, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that demand for meat will swell by more than 70 percent by 2050. Already 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land is devoted to feeding animals for meat thanks to the fact that cows and pigs convert only roughly 15 percent of the plants they eat into edible meat. Then there’s the problem of the greenhouse gas emissions, particularly potent methane, from all those ruminant belches and their waste, often stored in massive, stinky lagoons. The FAO estimates that livestock are responsible for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—more than all cars, trucks, ships and airplanes put together.

Of course, to reduce those emissions, the lab meat would have to be grown on a diet of algae, something that has never been accomplished. If that can be done on a big scale (and that’s a big if), the lab meat would reduce methane pollution by 95 percent, as well as reduce the need for farmlands to feed livestock by 98 percent, according to a 2011 study by the University of Oxford published in Environmental Science and Technology. Or we could just eat the algae directly.

The other reason for the hoopla is ethical: philosopher Peter Singer and groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals extol such efforts for eliminating human cruelty to animals. Why not harvest muscle cells from a single cow to culture millions of hamburgers rather than slaughtering hundreds of thousands of cattle?

This is neither the first time lab-grown meat has been grown—that honor goes to a NASA-funded goldfish filet from the early 2000s—nor eaten publicly. Biophysicist Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri tasted his own lab meat, constructed by a 3-D printer out of a meat “flour,” at a TED Med conference in 2011. “To increase the weight of a chicken, pig or cow by one kilogram, you have to use two, four and eight kilograms of feed, respectively,” Forgacs told a New America Foundation conference on the future of food in April 2012. “If that’s what is needed for me to eat meat, that is ridiculous.” His spinoff company, Modern Meadow, plans to focus on 3-D printing leather first, with funding from another Internet billionaire, PayPal’s Peter Thiel. Menlo Park–based outfit Sand Hill Foods also hopes to create lab-grown meat.

Researchers such as Forgacs and Post predict that it will take between 10 and 20 years to bring lab meat and meat products down in price and onto store shelves. Given that Post’s first petri patty has appeared nearly two years later than was first promised, that objective will likely prove optimistic. But as Post told the Rockefeller Foundation’s innovation meeting in June 2012: “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s doable.”

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. stampsc 6:34 pm 08/5/2013

    The worst part about this is that it’s an absolutely horrible place to go environmentally. Raising animals on pasture is easily the most ecologically sound way to care for the environment, and to get food to people who need it. It’s being done, it’s feeding people and reversing desertification, and it doesn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require a petri dish.

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  2. 2. elderlybloke 9:46 pm 08/5/2013

    We need this product no more than the one that the Emperor Napoleon Bonepart used for eating from.

    The stuff that was so expensive that he was the only one to use it.
    The rest of nobility at any function had to do with Silver or Gold.

    So expensive that its use was just a show of pomposity.

    Down with Aluminium -Aluminum if you are an American.

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  3. 3. sjfone 12:13 am 08/6/2013

    McPetri- it’s the future.

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  4. 4. Owl905 3:16 am 08/6/2013

    Once consumer resistance dissipates, tech-food will sweep the globe. Making it look like $330k to get the pioneer unit off the grill is expensive, is just plain wrong. The list of drawbacks and shortcomings is ridiculously short. This technology is the eulogy of Hunter-Gatherer Earth. It’s mete on the menu at half the price of homegrown … for the entire world. Designer taste, designer calories, designer size and designer done. It will have the same effect on cows that the automobile had on horses.

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  5. 5. Bobsoup 9:33 am 08/6/2013

    We may not ever produce meat for the masses by this technique.

    However, this is no doubt going to increase our understanding for more practical purposes.

    … and who knows… maybe Mars in 50 years, with a lack of pastures for cows- this is where the first colonists could get their meat and satisfy one craving from home.

    There could well be niche uses for this technology… lab grown burgers and tang… dinner for a champion.

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  6. 6. Steven 3:34 pm 08/6/2013

    It’s found to be technically feasible, so now the idea can be refined. This would essentially be a lab study.
    Now on to a pilot plant, then a full scale manufacturing complex.
    Chances are scaled up, it would be similar to a brewery, and breweries produce billions of gallons of beer each year.
    Probably millions of pounds, or thousands of tons could be produced, and would be so cheap, essentially could reduce if not end malnutrition, even among the poverty stricken.
    It may free up land which would be used for pasture ordinarily in producing beef for the fast food industry.
    Thousands, in fact millions of acres of land are being cleared of trees and rainforest in south America so they can be converted to pasture land for beef cattle to supply the fast food industry.
    Of course, clearing the rainforests is an environmental disaster, and many species in isolated environmental niches are facing extinction.
    In Africa, many animals, including great apes, are facing extinction since local hunters sell “bush meat” on the local market. If meat substitute is a lot cheaper than the bush meat, it would reduce pressure on wild animal populations in the bush, such as the great apes, and might enable them to avoid extinction.
    So although there is a high price for the lab produced product, scaling up through pilot plants and then full scale industrialization should bring the price down to manageable, even cheap enough levels to displace animal produced protein.

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  7. 7. Mr. Mxyzptlk III 5:11 pm 08/6/2013

    For the sake of the environment and of our health, we should be striving to reduce our intake of meat–especially red meat–instead of trying to figure out ways, and expensive ways at that, to make more of the stuff.

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  8. 8. nfiertel 6:04 pm 08/6/2013

    The author of this article admits that our meat eating needs does far more carbon output damage than our energy carbon output but for a year now, he has expounded infinitely on evil “tar sands” pipelines and production instead of on alternative food production. I guess he finally realised that he has kicked a dead horse once too often…Now he is onto beef…What is next? I am all for Soylent if it can be done sooner as I do not have 20 years to wait for a synth burger. Rather than spending all the energy on our need for chemical energy for cars and heating and so forth, get working on ways to lower the carbon output of animals raised for food. It would be a lot more useful an effort. Sci Am ought to dedicate more time to this than this wrong headed and misguided error prone articles on what is properly called oil sands and the produced synth oil which is pipeline friendly and safe to transport. The article here snickers as the cost of the burger. One could say much the same for the first ballpoint pen or the first well, Viagra Tablet…the headline could have been Do we need a 380K dollar huh mmm.. um….You can finish the headline yourselves..The answer is..yes.

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  9. 9. TonyTrenton 11:19 pm 08/6/2013

    Unfortunately it will take a crisis of monumental proportions to force such a change.

    Lab produced meat will be great for space travelers.

    Maybe that will be the kicker ?

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  10. 10. TonyTrenton 11:22 pm 08/6/2013

    Farming animals for food produces vast amounts of Methane.

    We know that’s not good !!

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  11. 11. seanosapien 7:25 am 08/7/2013

    If it stops the massacre of other animals, yes, yes we do need it.

    “Our task must be to free ourselves . . . by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
    “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

    The world refuses to take the advice of the greatest mind to have ever lived. It disgusts me how humans have developed the factory farming of other animals. Quit meat and live healthier, everybody wins.

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  12. 12. Daniel35 6:00 pm 08/7/2013

    Of course we need such technology, now expensive, but maybe eventually as easy to grow as a potato. Only the experimental lab version is expensive because it’s new. Who knows where it can lead?

    Of course it won’t do any good if it’s just an excuse to grow the population a bit faster. Each of us is represented not just by our genes, but also by our memes (cultural genes) everything we say or do that others pay attention to. We need to look mostly at every possible form of population reduction.

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  13. 13. jrvz 4:06 pm 08/8/2013

    Aluminium was once more expensive than Gold. Pepper and spices could only be afforded by the nobility etc.

    Things change, and technology improves.

    As regards the amount of ice free land being used to feed animals – yes this should be reduced to zero as soon as it is practical, but what about the proportion of ice free land that is used to produce maize for ethanol production when there are non food crops that can be used for this purpose.

    What proportion of the ice free land is actually usable for crop production. Here in South Africa there is far more land that is only usable for grazing than there is land that is usable for crop production. I suspect this is also the case for most countries in the world. This means that meat can still be produced, although not in the same quantities as at present when food that can be used by people is being fed to livestock.


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  14. 14. mralleyoop 4:43 pm 08/8/2013

    It is a chemical chitstorm.

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  15. 15. jonhuie 5:18 pm 08/8/2013

    ” demand for meat will swell by more than 70 percent by 2050″ is a silly statement to anyone who understands economics. Demand is a function of price. Lots of poor people would like to eat more meat today, but they can’t afford it – and so eat something cheaper. The same will be true in 2050. The supply of meat will go up; but the price will skyrocket because of more people (and more money) chasing a little more meat. So the percentage of the world’s population able to afford meat in 2050 will probably be lower than today.

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  16. 16. 6:54 pm 08/8/2013

    Growing meat in a Petri Dish just makes sense, until you realize that nature designed muscle cells for a specific purpose and as a subsystem of a larger, more complex, organism. Muscle cells respond to environmental stimuli, imposed on the host organism, through complex biochemical interactions which are unlikely to be simulated in a dish. And to top things off, in order to not break the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’, plant material will have to be included in the process, otherwise it will never be meat, in the strict sense. Upon further reflection the solution will be some sort of, muscle-cell, plant-cell hybrid able to supply all the amino acids required by a healthy human body. How will we know it’s ready, well when the new ‘Protein Source’ jumps out of the dish and bites the scientist, the “Eureka” scream will be the signal to start production.

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  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:52 am 08/10/2013

    Many false assumptions here. For example, note:

    Raising cattle is the main source of income for 100,000,000s of poor people. Will cultured meat help to feed them, or rather put them out of business and starve?

    Size of land and energy used for meat production now are themselves not optimized. Partially because much of the land used for grazing is unsuitable to grow crops.

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  18. 18. ericjwolfe 2:33 pm 08/12/2013

    You are forgetting, of course we don’t need this on earth, but the astronauts on Mars will need it since they won’t be able to go to visit the “Golden Arches” to get a big mac (at least on the first visit).

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