The Future of Food: Synthetic Meat Cultured in a Laboratory

synthetic meat

Choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is a growing trend in the United States, as more people become aware of the issues surrounding the production of meat on a commercial basis. Some people are dissuaded from eating meat because of moral questions regarding the treatment of animals. Others are convinced by the fact that 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land mass is used to raise animals for meat. The production of livestock for meat, eggs, and milk also uses about 30 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves. In addition, 1.3 billion tons of grain must be produced each year to feed livestock, which adds to the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides added to the environment. Because of these concerns, scientists have been using tissue engineering techniques to create laboratory-produced meat to reduce the environmental impact of meat production and to satisfy the need for beef, pork, and poultry for daily consumption.

Why Cultured Meat Makes Sense

Laboratory-produced meat eliminates the need for vast numbers of cattle, pigs, and poultry raised in large factory-type facilities. Instead, cultured meat only requires taking a small biopsy of animal muscle cells, which are placed into a matrix of collagen and then allowed to multiply using nutrients and controlled environmental conditions to keep them reproducing. The result is a muscle meat portion that is an exact cellular replica of what develops in live animals. However, this meat does not have the bone and fat tissue that is characteristic of natural meat, and therefore, does not have the same flavor or consistency as natural meat. These shortcomings must be addressed during the processing of the lab-created meat into a commercially viable product. While taking in the costs of developing synthetic meat in the lab currently ends up producing a $350,000 hamburger, the eventual economies of scale allowed by the large production of the item will provide a burger made of cultured meat that costs about $10 eventually, well within the budget of the American public.

History of Creating Synthetic Meat

The idea of creating artificial meat has been around for many decades, but it was not until an understanding of the environmental costs of producing meat became widespread that sufficient money and effort was put into developing it for commercial distribution. The project of developing lab-created meat actually began in the 1970s, when Russell Ross developed a way to grow muscle fibers in vitro. By 1998, companies began filing for patents on processes for creating synthetic meat in the lab. In 2013, scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands introduced the first lab-created burger, which was tasted and approved by renowned food critics.

But Will the Public Accept It?

Food is a touchy subject with the general population. Fundamental changes in the structure and nature of food are likely to be met with resistance if not all-out rejection. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have seen some of this profound rejection of “unnatural” food production. However, synthetic meat does not undergo genetic manipulation of any kind. Instead, it relies on the new technologies of “tissue engineering” that produce the exact same muscle tissue that is found in natural meat. The producers of synthetic meat are fully aware of the psychological problems of introducing a new product that smacks of laboratory manipulation. In fact, some detractors already have coined the term “frankenmeat” for the new food item. However, over time, they hope that effective marketing programs and educational efforts will serve to overcome public resistance.

Currently, the future of lab-created meat is still under development. Overcoming the public’s distrust of synthetic foods is one of the major obstacles for this new food product. Other factors, such as financial feasibility, nutritional content, moral considerations, and environmental impact must also be addressed before synthetic meat can become a regular feature of the American diet.