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A photo of a worker at a slaughterhouse arranging slaughtered cattle.

A worker moves cattle carcasses in a slaughterhouse in Brazil, which exports much of the world's beef.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAULO WHITAKER, REUTERS

Robert Kunzig

National Geographic

Published May 21, 2014

Here's one vision of the future of meat: We manufacture it from stem cells in giant "bioreactors" of the sort you might find in a modern pharmaceutical factory. The cells come from a contented pig that lives in the yard outside the village meat factory, where technicians sometimes poke it with a biopsy needle, and meat-eaters with quiet consciences give it a pat on their way to buy a cultured piece of it.

That vision, more or less, is fleshed out in a paper published in the June issue of Trends in Biotechnology by philosopher Cor van der Weele and biotechnologist Johannes Tramper, a pair of Dutch researchers from the University of Wageningen. Both describe themselves as "modest" meat-eaters, concerned about what modern meat production does to the planet and to the animals themselves.

The answer to both concerns, they suggest, and the way to create an alternative that meat-eaters will actually eat, may be to grow synthetic meat locally on a small scale. Instead of raising pigs on factory farms and killing them in slaughterhouses, van der Weele explained in an email, "pigs can act as living cell banks, while also keeping us in touch with animals, as well as the sources of our food."

In short, we could have our pig—or cow, or chicken—and eat it too.

The Farm-to-TED movement

Meat has very bad press these days, while alternatives to it are celebrated in TED talks. With global demand rising inexorably, everyone from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to Bill Gates has declared meat unsustainable, at least as it's currently produced.

Gates has invested in Beyond Meat, a Columbia, Missouri, start-up that has made faux chicken strips good enough to fool New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. (The strips were wrapped in a burrito.) Beyond Meat makes its product (available at Whole Foods) from soy and amaranth, applying a secret texturizing process to give it the fibrous feel of chicken breast.

Since we've reduced animals to machines for producing meat, Bittman and others argue, why not just go ahead and make animal meat with machines and give the actual animals a break?

Another start-up in Columbia, Modern Meadow, is in fact already trying to synthesize meat from animal muscle cells, using tissue engineering techniques developed originally to regenerate human organs.

Besides providing an alternative to raising livestock on Earth, Modern Meadow sees an opening for its product on long-duration space missions (which won't have room for livestock). "Cultured meat can boldly go where no meat has gone before," the company's website quips. Modern Meadow is partially funded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is backing a different horse. In a video last year, Brin explains why he bankrolled the world's first cultured-beef hamburger, which was synthesized from stem cells and served up last summer by Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. "Sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the ability to transform how we view our world," Brin says, wearing Google glasses as he stares at the camera. The burger cost him more than $300,000. "Mouthfeel was good but taste needs improvement," says Post. He still has to figure out how to add fat to the burger.

Post's long-term goal is to grow cultured steak—but that's going to be much, much harder than growing a lot of muscle fibers and mashing them into a patty. "You need to build a complex tissue with blood vessel-like structures to nourish the inner layers," Post emailed from Japan, where he was on his way to a 3-D printing conference. "It requires simultaneously assembling different cells and biomaterials in the right configuration."

Some critics of industrial livestock operations are intensely skeptical that cultured meat is the solution. Food activist Danielle Nierenberg thinks the "huge yuck factor" is going to limit the future of "petri dish meat."

"People who wouldn't eat tofu a few years ago, now they're going to eat meat grown in a lab?" she asks. A better future, Nierenberg and others argue, would require some degree of returning to the past—eating less meat, as we used to, and producing it in a less intensive way, on farms rather than feedlots.

A photo of a lab-grown meat burger.
This cultured meat was grown in a petri dish.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID PARRY, PA WIRE/AP

Lab-Meat Locavores

In a way, van der Weele and Tramper are responding to that kind of objection in their paper—they're trying to unite futurist geeks and small-is-beautiful "locavores" behind a cultured-meat product that is palatable to both. Their pig in the backyard is not just a source of stem cells. It's also meant to provide the sort of connection to our food chain that many people miss in the modern way of eating.

"Here, all of a sudden, we get a glimpse of a possible world in which we can have it all: meat, the end of animal suffering, the company of animals and simple technology close to our homes," van der Weele wrote in an earlier paper.

In the Dutch researchers' scheme, the stem cells—which unlike ordinary cells are capable of replicating themselves many times—would pass from the pig through a chain of progressively larger flasks, until the cells had multiplied enough to fill the largest currently available bioreactor, which holds 20 cubic meters (nearly 5,300 gallons). An enzyme would then be added to make the cells clump together and settle to the bottom. Finally that slurry would be pressed into a cake, put through a grinder, and divided into patties. It would take about a month to make each batch.

A single bioreactor, Tramper calculates, could supply meat to 2,500 people—provided those people ate only ground meat, and no more than an ounce of it a day. Americans eat ten times that, though our consumption has been declining lately.

The process would not grow meat fibers, let alone a steak; van der Weele and Tramper were looking for an idea that could be scaled up with existing technology. It cannot yet be scaled up at reasonable cost, however. The main problem is the special growth medium needed to culture stem cells, which at the moment still requires ingredients like serum from fetal animals.

At current prices for growth medium, cultured meat would cost at least $240 a pound—high even for Whole Foods. "Economic feasibility may turn out to be the greatest challenge for cultured meat," write van der Weele and Tramper.

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28 comments
Mahboob Chowdhury
Mahboob Chowdhury

This sort of meat was mentioned in a science fiction book named Chung Kao by an  English man named David Wingrove about 25 years back.

charles hudson
charles hudson

you know that when we get this right, we will have started down a soilent green future 

mao jason
mao jason

that's expensive- the cultured meat in whole foods

Fornik Tsai
Fornik Tsai

Perhaps not eat now, but we always have to face it in the future.

Otto Gómez
Otto Gómez

I wonder what the scientists are planning to do with the millions of animals that won´t be slaughtered now remainning in the rural areas, cosumming a greater quantity of natural resources, growing with no control without natural predators and producing gigantic emissions of gas toward the atmosphere?

World´s Animal production somehow is a perfect controlled herd that have worked  for us for centuries. 

And I am not considering all the escential Fatty acids present in the meat that can´t be lab replicated 

Is this really wise?

Peter Mbewe
Peter Mbewe

Is it totally safe for human consumption or that's another lab disease created?

John Reyesvilla Méndez
John Reyesvilla Méndez

Un invento alentador. Sigan produciendo y ojalá que esa carne salga buena y barata.

siri siri Krishna
siri siri Krishna

 Call it not-really-meat. A woman and a transvestite are different, a burger and a soy burger are different, and a killer and an actor are different. It should be plain and simple, if you wouldn't put politics and your tree-hugging agenda on the way.

Steve Dunjey
Steve Dunjey

the matrix is looming,  machines growing human bodies on mass as a source of energy.

An Thrope
An Thrope

It still amazes me how complacent our society is with enslaving and slaughtering animals for food, purely for "pleasure" rather than necessity. Short of social rejection of such unhealthy/immoral practices, I hope that lab-gown meat will at least wean more people from such barbarism.

Ann Mooney
Ann Mooney

What effect will this have on our bodies?  I for one am NOT interested in finding out.  Scratch it off the list of possible solutions.  Please

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

at least it's in the air ! and could fix many current problems - to be followed, definitely, hopefully this will not take (too) many years to conclude, it's too important

Jana Stepanek
Jana Stepanek

i see this on the right track, you just need to continue the research; it would be a wonderful alternative for future generations...

Marc Myers
Marc Myers

This seems like a lot of effort to produce a product that has nothing to recommend it being any more palatable than textured soy protein, the stuff of today's meat substitutes.

Larry Downs
Larry Downs

Hopefully (if I live this long) they won't discover something to add to it that will make it more salable and profitable but will also kill you...


Zaan Makamitire
Zaan Makamitire

First off, we should just swap diets from inefficient meats like beef and instead eat smaller quantities of sustainable protein sources. Then we can worry about this.

Wayne Feaster
Wayne Feaster

put some garlic salt on that patty and fry it up . can you guys grow fake cheese too?

Zulu Lala
Zulu Lala

I've been waiting for sausage trees for years!

But the conclusion is kinda sad.. If I understood correctly, you're still harvesting animals, just fetuses rather than grownups.


Also: what are you feeding the cells with and is it more efficient than the animal body? It's no use if we need as much corn/soy/whatever to feed the machine with.


As for directly replacing meat for soy, is it really a viable solution? Soy culture is already impoverishing the soils in a dramatic way.


Rob Bairos
Rob Bairos

@charles hudson soylent green wasn't grown in a petri dish (without spoiling the movie).. this technology actually protects against soylent green scenarios.

James Tyrrell
James Tyrrell

@Otto Gómez

I would say that the upheaval is not really the scientists problem, much like the engineers who created the first cars didn't think about (or worry about) how it would effect the horse industry of the early 20th century. I imagine that people will continue to eat farmed livestock and as more people switch to grown meat the industry and herds will shrink as demand dwindles.

As for the essential fatty acids in meat I'm guessing that as this technology is in it's infancy It was only in 1998, Thompson developed the first embryonic stem cell lines. That in the next 20 years we'll have figured out how to produce and add those elements in.

As to whether it's wise.... Well it's a solution, to a large number of problems I'm sure it will come with it's issues, but I think it works better than our current system.

Jasmine Eacret
Jasmine Eacret

Obviously you would continue to slaughter until you run down to the few you need to keep the stem cells coming, instead of letting them "grow with no control"

Dannie Kamete
Dannie Kamete

@siri siri Krishna The worst analogies ever. Genetically speaking, it's still meat. You will have to learn a whole lot about science before you make bad comparisons

siri siri Krishna
siri siri Krishna

@An Thrope Inmoral is asking people to do what you want. You do not know what is and what is not necessary. And even if that were the case, why should I do only necessary? Do you eat only what is necessary and then give food to the hungry? Why do you pay taxes, if they are used to pay for politicians lavish lives among other unnecessary things!?!?

Joe VanderPoodle
Joe VanderPoodle

Being made from stem cells means that it will do no more harm than actual meat. Cells are cells are cells are cells, no matter how you look at it.

James Tyrrell
James Tyrrell

@Marc Myers

You do realise this is like the Wright Flyer of grown meat, it's proof of concept, have a look at how advanced mobile phones, the Internet or computer games have come in the last 20 years. In 20 years from now that unpalatable ball of goo will be a prime fillet stake costing pennies to produce.

Joe VanderPoodle
Joe VanderPoodle

No animals are harmed in the making of this meat, maybe a little pinch from a biopsy needle

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