Mar 21 2016

In Praise of Lab-Grown Meat

lab-grown-meatLab-grown meat now seems inevitable, although it is still hard to predict exactly how long it will take to become a popular consumer item. Here is a quick overview of what this is, and its potential to improve our food supply.

Lab grown meat involves taking muscle stem cells from animals, like pigs, chickens, or cows, and then growing them, well, in a lab. They can be grown in a large vat of nutrients.

What you end up with is not fully formed muscle, as if it were taken from an animal, but simply a mass of muscle cells. Animal muscles also contain fat, vessels, and connective tissue, which help give it its texture. For taste the fat marbling is probably the most important.

We are not close to creating a full steak, but we can already create the equivalent of ground meat, for hamburgers, meatballs, meatloaf, or whatever you would use ground meat for. Last year a Dutch team claimed they were 5 years away from a marketable lab-grown meat product. The limitation is cost-effective mass production.  They claim they can get the cost of a burger under $10 in that time.

That is still an expensive burger, but might be at a threshold for early consumer adoption. As mass production scales up, the cost will only go down.

Another industry that is likely to be an early adopter is pet food. Pets are likely to be less discriminating, and some animals really do need animal protein.

Why Bother?

Meat production is a problematic industry. For full disclosure, I do eat meat, but I recognize that the industry has some issues. I do not have an ethical problem with eating animals, as long as they are treated humanely during their life, including how they are slaughtered. I know this is a complex topic, and I don’t want to make it the focus of this article, so I will let that summary suffice.

There are also environmental issues. Growing meat for food is not very efficient. There are ways to maximize its efficiency, such as using land for grazing that is not suitable for crops. Even best case, however, consuming meat has a larger environmental footprint than consuming plants. For this reason I think it is reasonable to limit meat consumption, but I don’t think it has to be eliminated.

In any case, lab-grown meat solves some of these problems. There is no issue of the ethical treatment of animals. There is still an issue of where the nutrients come from to grow the cells, so the ultimate environmental impact will depend on this, but it seems we will have many more options for feeding cells in a vat than feeding live animals.

Interesting Possibilities

I am intrigued by the new possibilities raised by lab-grown meat. Once we get beyond the basics of creating tasty and properly textured meat, we can start exploring other possibilities, like genetically tweaking the stem cells to produce a healthier profile of fat.

It also seems likely that there will be gourmet varieties of lab-grown meat with special flavors and textures. Lab-grown meat may eventually surpass animal-derived meat in these qualities.

Another interesting possibility is deriving the muscle stem cells from wild or exotic animals. We will no longer be limited to the usual domesticated animals. If you want to try zebra, you can eat a lab-grown zebra burger (perhaps without the gamey flavor, which largely derives from what animals eat in the wild).

It might even be possible to derive muscle stem cells from extinct animals, like mammoth. You might be able to eat a mammoth burger one day (although a brontosaurus burger is sadly unlikely).


Lab grown meat is coming. It looks like we will see early commercial options in about five years. It probably won’t be long before the industry takes off after that.

The real advantages of lab-grown meat probably won’t manifest for a while, but then we will have the ability to explore many interesting possibilities. The luddites are sure to complain about genetically engineered artificial meat, but seriously, who cares. Let them complain while I enjoy my healthy, environmentally friendly, awesome tasting giraffe-loaf.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “In Praise of Lab-Grown Meat”

  1. Why not lab-grown fruits and vegetables too? The consummate locavore could get all their food sourced from a local lab. Why use plants with fussy growing requirements that disturb large swaths of land over time when we just want the yummy part that’s eaten?

  2. Kawarthajon says:

    Not sure that this is the answer to our environmental problems. I can’t imagine that this would be much more efficient than current factory farming technologies, especially for fish, pigs and chickens, which use a lot less energy to farm than cattle. Maybe it would be a viable replacement for cattle farming, which is incredibly inefficient and environmentally destructive, but not for the more efficient meats. Time will tell. I think the focus must be on reducing overall global population, not just on farming more efficiently. There is an incredible lack of focus on the population issue, despite it being the biggest environmental and social problem facing humans today. Reduce global population and you will reduce greenhouse gases, reduce pollution and have more land available for wildlife, reducing our impact on the planet dramatically.

  3. MikeB says:

    OK. It’s coming, fine.

    Aside from the coolness of it–look what we can do!–so what? I’d eat it but not out of any delusion that it is more “sustainable” or anything.

    You still have to build facilities. You still have to provide energy inputs to the cells in the labs.

    And population will still continue to grow.

  4. If lab-grown meat removes ethical issues about eating animals, will it be acceptable to grow and eat manburgers?

  5. wbiskit says:

    @Ori. That’s an interesting ethical question

  6. mindme says:

    How many years out is slig meat?

  7. Willy says:

    Sam Harris covered this topic a few weeks ago: It is an intriguing and informative interview.

  8. mumadadd says:

    mindme, I prefer scrabs personally.

  9. banyan says:

    @Ori, well, the soy based healthy alternative to human flesh, Hufu, apparently never really caught on. This leads me to believe that there just isn’t a market out there for ethically sourced human flesh.

  10. John Danley says:

    I’ll defer to Craig Venter for any related discussion.

  11. BillyJoe7 says:

    I can’t find “slig”, “scrabs”, or “hufu” in my dictionary. 🙁
    Perhaps I should outwabe this conversation.

  12. zeimet1 says:

    Makes me wonder if the meat industry will go after this technology to prevent it from supplanting their livelihoods. If lab grown meat becomes both economical and indistinguishable from conventional meat, then it’s a no-brainer — except for the politics. Unless of course the meat industry embraces it as their future.

  13. Sylak says:

    Yeah Human meat, I also thought about it. If the only thing you need at first is simply a little bit of tissue, if someone agree for them to make meat with it, this is weird, but I don’t see any problem. Pretty sure we don’t taste that good ( probably like chicken, To quote Garrus vakarians ” I heard human think everything taste like it” ). Chicken and fish are better. Beef, It like it, but not that as much.

    We eat a lot of vegan/veggie food, most of our diet. We are fan of Asian and Indian food so that come with it, liking tofu and Lentils etc. We don’t limit our dairy and egg, but beside fish, we don’t eat meat often. we use to be Vegetarians, but my wife got eating disorder ( mostly behind her now, but she still have her bad moment) so now, no restriction are permitted, we have everything we want. Best way of beating those.

    @zeinet maybe but it’s still a long way ahead. And I think they will always be a niche market for special meat like Kobe beef or that Pig they grown in Spain that is worth 1000s of dollars ( I never remember the name or wild meat from hunting. The industries will have plenty of time to adjust. of course, like all game changing tech, they will be disruptions: people losing their job, political pushing the block it AND adopt it etc. But if we see it arrive in advance. People will prepare. In the mean time, the meat industry still need to clean up its act. I’m not against eating meat either, but there’s still some work to be done in animal ethic and environmental impact right now

    @Kawarthajon Well the best population control is education and increasing the living standards. Increase the revenue, education, health of country, the birth rate drop. But we are heading toward the 9 billion, no way around it now.

  14. Fair Persuasion says:

    What would the awesome advertising look like for lab-grown human meat? Hey bro, fo’ twenty bucks you could be the Milwaukee Cannibal?

  15. jayarava says:

    One important component missing from vat meat is *blood* which contributes to flavour and colour.

  16. petrossa says:

    so hubris has taken so much hold now homo sapiens really believes it can outperform the efficiency of herbivores evolved over millions of years to concentrate vegetative life (such as hay, leaves, wood) into a nice small package filled with nutrients as a slab of meat?

    Just the mere idea is ludicrous. What you’ll end up is RTE ‘meat’ which you can buy already from army surplus.

    Or even better, why not feed people with cattle feed directly? Nice compact pellets full of goodness, you can skip the intermediate part of first feeding them to cattle, efficiency all over the place.

  17. BillyJoe7 says:

    But wait…plants feed on CO2 and nutrients from the soil. Why not feed these directly into humans?

  18. zorrobandito says:

    “Reduce global population and you will reduce greenhouse gases, reduce pollution and have more land available for wildlife, reducing our impact on the planet dramatically.”

    Well of course. How exactly are we going to do this?

    Something of course will do it, probably sooner rather than later, but the process is not likely to be pleasant.

  19. mindme says:

    “so hubris has taken so much hold now homo sapiens really believes it can outperform the efficiency of herbivores evolved over millions of years to concentrate vegetative life (such as hay, leaves, wood) into a nice small package filled with nutrients as a slab of meat?”

    I think you might have missed a few things. I don’t think anyone is claiming humans that with trying to make tank grown meat affordable. Many people enjoy meat and probably can’t be talked into quitting. Some meat eaters are like smokers. No matter how many arguments you throw at someone that quitting something is better for their health (personal/health of the planet), there will be people that won’t stop consuming it. . As well, there are hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty and ready to start consuming meat like Westerners. Hence, it seems sensible to figure out a way to grow something that will satisfy demand and not hurt the environment.

    “What you’ll end up is RTE ‘meat’ which you can buy already from army surplus.”

    If you raise a generation on factory farmed salmon, that is salmon to them. If they never taste wild salmon, they won’t know there’s a difference in taste. If you raise a generation on tank grown meat, that will be meat to them.

  20. tvadakia says:

    I had just stumbled upon this blog posting written by Texas-based science communicator who goes by the name of Dr. Ricky. I remembered this particular blog entry you had posted and this topics mention on the SGU. I was hoping you’d lend a rebuttal on Dr. Ricky’s written thoughts.

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