Lab-Grown Burger (Photo: Reuters/David Parry/poo)
than you might realize
the future, however, proponents hope so-called cultured
meat will get cheaper. If it does, making beef from stem cells could be an
environmentally friendly alternative to, you know, killing animals for food.
Raising cattle takes up a lot of arable land and water
and creates greenhouse gas emissions. Engineers working on
in vitro meat hope their creations will be less harmful on the environment.
But will they ever get there?
new paper, published yesterday in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, aimed to
find out. It outlined a new method for growing
ground beef in a lab, different from both the
technique used in last year's burger and the 3-D printing that other researchers
have proposed. It also crunches some numbers on how
much this animal-free beef would cost. Growing meat in lab is resource-intense
and expensive, it turns out. One of the biggest costs? Feeding the little
the techniques that made last year's burger, bioengineer Johannes Tramper's
proposed method starts with a small number of stem cells taken from an animal.
After that, however, they go into a big, cylindrical bioreactor, like the ones
used in the pharmaceutical industry today. In contrast, the burger was grown
from small pieces in dishes in lab and made just a few
burgers. So Tramper's idea brings meat-growing to a bigger scale. So far, so
Proposed Method for Growing Ground Beef in Lab (Photo: Trends in Biotechnology,
van der Weele et al.)
bioreactor could make 25,600 kilograms (56,400 pounds) of meat a year, Tramper,
a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands,
calculates. His numbers take into account how big cells are, how fast cells
reproduce, and how many batches a bioreactor processes in a year. Assuming a
person eats 10 kilos of meat a year—enough for 968 burgers—one bioreactor could
feed 2,560 people.
much would it cost to grow a kilo of this stuff? About 391 euros ($534), Tramper
calculates. That's how much it takes to buy growth medium,
the liquidy stuff that cells must grow on. After
all, cells are living things. They have to eat, too. In fact, although one of
the benefits of lab-grown meat is that it's not supposed
to harm any animals, for now, growth medium requires animal products to
Research could lower the cost of growth medium to 8 euros a kilo, or about $5 a
pound, Tramper thinks. That's still not competitive with cow-grown ground beef.
Plus, it doesn't take into account other costs of running a bioreactor, such as
hiring three or four well-trained people.
"Competition with normal meat is still a challenge," says Cor van der Weele, a
Wageningen University bioethicist who worked with
Tramper on the new paper. "We are not especially optimistic
about that, in the short term."
the future, perhaps conventional meat will rise in price, van der Weele says.
That will help close the gap between in vitro and
van der Weele and Tramper think it's important to study cultured meat to try to
bring down its price, but that it's not a guaranteed solution to the problems of
world's appetite for animals. "It's not certain that
this is going to succeed," van der Weele says. "We do believe it is necessary to
"Cultured meat is one such alternative, but [so are] textured
vegetable protein or even whole insects," Tramper wrote to Popular
Science in an email.
Beyond price, there's one comparison many have missed, says a Texas-based
science communicator who goes by the name Dr. Ricky.
Dr. Ricky, who prefers to go by his pseudonym, has written and given public
talks about the drawbacks of cultured meat. It's not clear yet that cultured
meat is—or will be—more environmentally friendly than meat cut from cows. Dr.
Ricky doesn't think it will be.
"We're talking about feeding cells, running the bioreactor, sterilizing the
area, the facilities we need to do all that," he says. "This form of biology
factory is hilariously inefficient, relative to the
Without numbers like those Tramper calculated for the price of lab meat, Popular
Science can't say whether Dr. Ricky is right. While many scientists have
calculated the environmental footprint of beef, no one has done that for stem
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