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WHAT'S THE DEAL?

On August 5, a nutritionist and a food critic chowed down on the world’s very first laboratory-grown hamburger at a press conference in London.

Dutch scientists created the meat by taking stem cells from a live cow and immersing them in a nutrient-rich broth to grow and multiply. The cells were then placed in a Petri dish until they formed thousands of muscle fibers, which were regularly flexed and exercised until a perfectly round patty of death-free meat was ready for cooking. This first burger cost $330,000 to produce, but you might be able to go to the grocery store and pick one up in about 10 years.

The process is a type of tissue engineering, coming out of the same scientific field that hopes to create lab-grown organs for people in need of transplants Cultured meat from stem cells: challenges and prospects. Post MJ. Department of Physiology, Cardiovascular Research Institute Maastricht, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Meat science. 2012 Nov; 92(3):297-301. . People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has strongly supported the development of artificial meat for many years — the organization has even offered a one million dollar reward for whoever invents synthetic chicken.

WHY IT MATTERS

Creating artificial meat is hardly a space-age concept. Way back in 1931, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill predicted that within 50 years, scientists would invent a way to grow cuts of meat without rearing an entire animal. Time frame-wise, he was a little off the mark, but streamlining meat production has clearly been a hot topic for some time.

The scientist responsible for the "cultured" burger (think Petri dish, not monocles and opera) is Maastricht Univeristy’s Dr. Mark Post, who says we’re quickly running out of time to find a solution to the impending “meat crisis.” During a TED talk last year, he noted that humans already use 70 percent of our arable land to produce livestock and their feed, but our meat consumption is predicted to double in the next 40 years. That demand will be awfully difficult to meet.

While it’s difficult to predict future trends, the way meat is produced is widely considered unsustainable and bad for the environment Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. McMichael, A.J., Powles, J.W. et al. The Australian National University. The Lancet, 2007 October 6;370(9594): 1253-63. Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter? Marlow, H.J., Hayes, W.K. et al. Loma Linda University. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009 May; 89(5): 1699S-1703S . Livestock produces around a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions (cows fart and burp methane, a gas linked to global warming) and experts have said that raising animals requires more than eight times as much fossil fuel as the equivalent volume of plant protein. Compared with conventional beef, synthetic meat uses 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land, 82 to 96 percent less water, and 78 to 90 percent less greenhouse gas Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Tuomisto, H.L., de Mattos, M.J. University of Oxford. Environmental Science and Technology, 2011 July 15;45(14): 6117-23.

In addition, artificial meat would reduce the risk of diseases associated with tightly packed farms (like E. Coli and avian flu), and cultured meat can be engineered to surpass the nutritional profile of slaughtered meat — for example, scientists could create beef that is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

IS IT LEGIT?

Maybe. The meat is real, but whether it’ll ever be widely consumed remains to be seen. Now that the patties are out of the bag, the most pressing issue is cost. After developing the initial burger prototype, the scientists need more funds to boost production and reduce costs so artificial meat can be mass-produced for widespread consumption.

In addition, cultured meat wouldn’t require as many natural resources or employees as the livestock industry currently uses, which would theoretically result in cheaper meat, eventually. It’s worth remembering that many everyday technologies were incredibly expensive in their initial stages, and only became affordable after they were mass-produced.

Taste-wise, reviews have been pretty mixed. The burger's two taste testers both agreed that the taste and texture of the patty suffered due to the complete absence of any fat, though Dr. Post and his team are working on improving it.

But even if a Petri dish could birth a completely flawless burger that was indistinguishable from the real thing, would anybody actually eat it? A 2011 poll asked whether people would eat a meat alternative grown from an animal’s DNA. Only 11 percent answered that they would — and just two percent of vegans were comfortable with the idea. Plus, according to Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of New York's West Side Institutional Synagogue, the meat isn't technically kosher, since the animal that contributed the DNA wasn't killed in a kosher manner. However, Dr. Post is certain that within thirty years, natural meat will be at least twice as expensive as synthetic meat, which will greatly enhance its appeal — assuming, of course, he gets enough funding to scale up his operations.

Synthetic beef is definitely a strange idea. But given the tremendous environmental and financial costs of raising livestock, and taking into account the world’s rapidly increasing population, we might need to consider the idea of man-made meat sooner than we’d like.

How do you feel about cultured meat? Share it in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @ncjms.

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