Food

Lab-Grown Meat Is the Future of Food: Are You Ready to Take a Bite? (Video)

It's better for animals, it's better for people, and it may even taste better than the real thing.

Burger on black background.
Photo Credit: Algirdas Mazeika/Shutterstock

Soon, your burger may come out of a test tube. Cultured meat—meat developed in a scientific lab rather than from slaughtered animals—is rapidly becoming the future of food, or protein, at least.

SuperMeat, a new independent company determined to create meat without killing animals, raised more than twice its desired IndieGoGo funds this past September, which will help develop this meat created from animal cells. With over $200,000 in funding from internet donors, SuperMeat is an exciting prospect for people trying to be more environmentally and ethically conscious.

In 2006, the Vegetarian Resource Group reported that about 2.3 percent of American adults were vegetarian, while 1.4 percent were vegan. Ten years later, the same group found that about 3.3 percent of Americans were vegetarian or vegan in 2016. Rates of vegetarianism appear to remain steady, despite greater knowledge of the animal suffering involved in factory farming and the detrimental environmental effects of meat eating (meat eaters are proven to have the largest carbon footprint).

So if they’re not going to quit their meat-eating habits, Americans need a new sustainable source of meat.

“Knowing the damage caused by the meat industry, made us determined to create cultured meat,” Ronen Bar, vice president of SuperMeat said. “The enormous suffering of hundreds of billions of sentient beings that are slaughtered every year. The destructive effect on the planet and our atmosphere. The pandemics that are caused as a result of intensive animal feeding operations, and antibiotic resistant bacteria that grow and flourish in factory farms. All this made us realize that humanity cannot go on with the current way of producing meat.”

SuperMeat’s mission is simple: clean, healthy, environmentally friendly meat, or as Bar said, “Real meat, without all the bad stuff." The company aims to create a cell-based, non-meat meat—the first of its kind—that will sell in grocery store kiosks and be affordable for consumers.  

SuperMeat is not the only project to attempt creating non-meat meat. The world’s first test-tube-cultivated burger, with a $325,000 pricetag, debuted in 2013 and several other companies are racing to develop the first commercially available cultured meat, yet the product has yet to be commercially available at reasonable costs.

Though factory farm-produced meat may cost as low as cents per pound, the animal suffering is enormous. In the United States alone, approximately 4.6 billion animals—including cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys and ducks—are slaughtered every year for their flesh.

In addition to the misery these animals endure over their short lives, the environmental cost of factory farming is massive. As Salon recently reported, industrial agriculture is responsible for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of those deriving from livestock, and a week without Americans eating cheese or meat could have the environmental equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the roads.

Yaakov Nahmias, director of  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Grass Center for Bioengineering, partnered with SuperMeat to help develop the biotechnology that will make the product possible. “With the global population hurtling towards 10 billion individuals, we are running out of water and land to feed the growing population,” Nahimias said, citing his three children and the future of food security as an inspiration for getting involved in the project.

“Factory farms use low doses of antibiotics and arsenic-based compounds to speed up animal growth leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and unsafe levels of arsenic and salmonella in most, if not all chicken meat on the market," he said. "This means that eating uncooked chicken meat has become a dangerous health hazard responsible for the hospitalization of thousands each year. This wasn't the case a few decades ago.”  

The meat industry is riddled with problems. Factory farms are known for their secrecy, with investigative videos depicting horrendous violations of animal welfare standards being leaked on a fairly regular basis. Meanwhile, SuperMeat is racing to become consumer-ready and even rival the type of meat currently sold in supermarkets.

But how does this sci-fi-esque food technology work?

“The idea behind cultured meat is relatively simple. We take muscle cells from an animal and get them to proliferate, expand, in large vats,” explained Nahmias. “Then we put them together and ‘assemble’ a meat patty that is biologically identical to animal meat.”

SuperMeat's competitors use cow serum to grow the cultured meat cells, “essentially killing 100 calves to make a single hamburger,” at this phase, Nahmias said. The process is hugely expensive, and Nahmias doesn’t believe those using this method can get the price below $100 per kilogram—far more expensive than traditional meat.

With SuperMeat, cells proliferate and expand without the serum, meaning the cultured meat produced in their lab is created without animal products. “Our cells expand quickly and our technology allows them to assemble into growing pieces of muscle,” Nahmias explained. “We can send these pieces and allow them to grow locally at the consumer location.” This saves enormous costs on shipping. Nahmias predicts the product will cost around $1-5 per kilogram.

Impossible Burger, a company known for creating a veggie burger that “bleeds,” debuted its first consumer-ready meat-free burger in New York City this past July. Made with root hemoglobin to simulate the actual bleeding of animal flesh (an element that might help lure carnivores) and a concoction of secret vegetable-based proteins, raw Impossible Burger has a texture similar to ground beef and sizzles once it hits the grill, like a meat-based burger patty. The product is not currently available outside of David Chang’s Nishi restaurant, where an Impossible Burger retails for $12—a fantastic detail considering the $180 million in research that has funded for the project.

Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., recently invested in a startup called Beyond Meat which has created a lab-produced vegetarian meat that sizzles and tastes like actual animal flesh. When the meat industry is getting involved in projects that can potentially threaten its business model, you know that change is really happening.

In contrast to Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, SuperMeat is not made of vegetables disguised to look like meat. So will SuperMeat’s product actually satiate cravings for cooked animal flesh?

“It will taste like regular meat, but the whole process is much more controllable, so people will be able to personally adjust their meat, its ingredients and flavors, creating new exciting tastes,” Bar explained. For example, consumers can combine meat from cells of a chicken and a rabbit for an entirely new FrankenProtein. 

SuperMeat’s crowdfunded campaign is not nearly enough, however, to bring this non-meat meat to fruition. SuperMeat estimates that it still needs $500,000 to afford a meat-making machine, $1 million to create a cost-efficient method of producing chicken tissue and $2.5 million for a prototype, consumer-ready machine. The monetary and scientific challenges are plentiful, but the team believes the non-meat meat can truly be achieved.

“We would never have walked down this path if we didn't think that a commercial, competitive and healthy product is achievable,” Bar said. “Of course, much research is needed.”

As the research and next steps continue, Nahmias said that cultured meat is indeed the future of meat, whether or not we like it. “As long as the global population continues to grow, there is really no other way.”

Watch a video about SuperMeat:

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. 

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