The quest to make meat without animals

You could see test tube burgers on a menu sooner than you think

Because of concern over the environment, animal rights, or even their health, more people are adopting a vegetarian diet—see the “Meatless Mondays” movement, for starters—but how to convince hardcore meat-eaters to switch? At the AAAS Meeting on Sunday, a panel of experts talked about the quest to create “test tube burgers” and realistic meat substitutes, which is closer than many of us realize. One scientist revealed the product could even hit store shelves this year.

Meat consumption has a huge environmental impact: it’s a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and foodborne illnesses, like E. coli. By the year 2050, Nicholas Genovese of the University of Missouri told the crowd today, meat consumption will increase by 60 per cent. What’s needed, he continued, is “the next agricultural revolution”—one that changes the way we produce meat. Stanford University’s Patrick Brown and Eindhoven University of Technology’s Mark Post presented two very different visions of what this “new meat” could be.
Mark Post—a doctor by training—is trying to grow meat from animal stem cells. By crafting the skeletal muscle tissue of a pig or cow in the lab, he could actually make meat for eating, he says. They’re working with cow cells at the moment, trying to make a hamburger, and don’t yet have quite enough in the lab to make a meatball; once they do, they’ll cook it and see how it tastes. It’s hard to say how long it will be before we see products like this become widely available: first they have to find a way to significantly up the production, and getting financial backing before there’s a real “proof of concept” is a challenge. Post admitted to having a “reputable” financial backer on this project, but wouldn’t reveal his or her identity. Animal rights group PETA famously offered a $1 million prize to the team that could successfully grow meat in the lab but all these researchers said they don’t intend to claim that prize: as Genovese said, the greatest prize would be creating a technology that can “sustainably support humanity, without destroying the ecosystem.”

Brown, meanwhile, has a different approach: he’s working making meat alternatives from plant sources that can actually compete with beef, pork, chicken and other animal products—even dairy. The point isn’t to make another tofurky or almond milk, he says. It’s to make something that “can compete head-on with meat and dairy products,” especially among meatlovers who’d never touch a veggie burger. A “major Silicon Valley venture firm” is backing him, he said, although he wouldn’t identify which—and, most tantalizingly, he suggested their first meat alternative could be on store shelves within the year. The product “totally rocks,” he says, adding that it’s virtually indistinguishable from what it replaces, “even by hardcore foodies.” But he wouldn’t elaborate on whether it will be more like a steak, sausage, chicken or rack of lamb. Hopefully, he said, the ideal product will be something that can satisfy all meat cravings.

Agricultural farming is “by far the biggest ongoing environmental catastrophe,” Brown said. To find a meat alternative that can really convince people to switch, these three scientists are convinced, could help save the world.

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