You can now place your order for a burger grown entirely in a lab. After years of work – and hundreds of thousands of dollars – one group of researchers have made one of the world’s first in vitro burgers. It may take some time before in vitro burgers replace old fashioned farmed burgers, but the feat is a delicious victory for environmentalists and scientists alike in search for alternate ways to feed the world’s addiction to meat.
The culinary breakthrough is the creation of Mark Post, a Vascular Physiology professor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. To make the burger, he and his team of researchers began with a kind of stem cell called a myosatellite cell that is taken from a cow’s neck. The myosatellite cells are placed in growth medium that the researchers have formulated to allow them to grow and divide. The cells are grown into 20,000 strips of muscle tissue which are finally assembled into a burger. In all, the in vitro burger is comprised of tens of billions of cells.
Burger lovers know that fat provides much of a burger’s juicy goodness. But Post, who has sampled his lab-grown recipe, says although it has zero fat, his burger “tastes reasonably good.” In the coming weeks Post plans on cooking his burger at an event in London where participants will try the in vitro meat – adding salt and pepper to taste.
The burger isn’t completely devoid of a reliance on cows. The muscle cells were grown in fetal calf serum. It’s hoped that in the future the burger can be produced without any material of animal origin.
At a cost of $325,000 to produce the single lab-grown burger, to say that the technique needs to be scaled massively before cultured burgers make an appearance on menus is quite the understatement. But we eat our elephants one bite at a time, and Post sees the burger as a groundbreaking first step aimed at people’s minds, not their stomachs. He told the New York Times: “Let’s make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to, ‘well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it.’”
While Post maintains faith that technological advances will bring costs down, it still remains to be seen whether or not producing burgers in the lab will be at least as safe as normal burgers and, if it’s going to be a sustainable enterprise, if it will taste as good. At least at this early stage, thick, juicy stakes is something people shouldn’t expect.
At least one person – aside from Post and the members of his lab – believes that the project will eventually serve up results. Who exactly, we can’t say, as the $325,000 burger was funded by an anonymous investor.
While cultured meat is better for the environment might seem obvious, a 2011 study summarized just how much better it is. Compared to conventional meat production in Europe, cultured meat required up to 45 percent less energy and up to 96 percent less water to produce, generated up to 96 percent less greenhouse gases and, without animal herds of flocks to tend to, requires 99 percent less land.
The world’s population continues to grow at a fierce rate and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Countries with burgeoning economies like China are expected to increase their demand for meat to feed growing middle class populations. In vitro burgers have long been sought as a solution to minimize environmental costs of beef farms and as an alternative to slaughtering millions of cattle every year. If and when they make it to grocery market shelves, they’ll be a savory addition to our sustainable future.