Breakthroughs in cultured meat production might enable greener food production without sacrificing burgers and steaks.
As a vegetarian, I’ll occasionally hear jokes about how it’s still totally okay for me to eat McDonald’s burgers. “Why not?” they ask. “It’s not like there’s actual meat in them anyway!” While that’s a slight exaggeration, in a couple of decades it may not be far-fetched. Cultured meat, food literally grown from stem cells instead of traditional farming techniques, is something scientists have been striving for since the 1930s; Winston Churchill even considered it to be an inevitable development. And before everyone starts crying “Soylent Green”, science is already making cultured meat today, it’s just not financially feasible to produce on a large scale. According to biologists Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper however, the system might work on a smaller-scale, specifically with individual bioreactors growing “meat” for 2500 people every year.
The current technique of growing meat from stem cells was introduced by Mark Post in 2013, although it wasn’t exactly efficient; a single patty grown this way would cost about $385,000. Van der Wheele and Tramper’s model uses bioreactors to facilitate exponential cell growth, at which point meat could be harvested, pressed, and divided into consumer-sized portions. Assuming that losses are kept to a minimum, each bioreactor would produce 25,600 kilograms of cultured meat per year, roughly equaling 10 kilograms per person for a village of 2,560. Presumably larger populations could then be served by additional bioreactors, which would have the additional benefit of creating local jobs.
Under this model, large-scale factory farms could be replaced with smaller urban farms, where companion animals are raised for donating muscle stem cells instead of slaughter. Unfortunately, cost effectiveness is still a problem. Pricing cultured meat as though it were regular meat would only earn $175,360 per bioreactor. Now consider that each reactor requires at least three technicians for the year, not to mention any operational costs that may build up. Unless the price of meat goes up we probably won’t see cultured meat produced quite this way, but it is a model that could be improved upon in future generations.
What do you think? Is cultured meat something that will never take hold? Or will I be meeting friends for McDonald’s burgers in the near future?