Where’s the beef? Try the lab.
Researchers attempt to make meat without killing livestock.
The human appetite for “meat with feet” has never been great news for animals. But more and more, it’s also being viewed as a detriment to human health and the environment, leading some activists to wonder if a better way to produce meat might be found. One intriguing possibility may be found in the laboratory.Skip to next paragraph
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Last month, the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced it was offering $1 million to the first person to make lab-grown chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The taste and texture, PETA said, must be “indistinguishable” from real chicken flesh, and the lab-cultured meat must be “sold commercially ... at a competitive price in at least 10 states.”
While PETA appears be in little danger of losing its money, so-called “in vitro” meat may yet be coming to a hamburger or chicken nugget near you, says Jason Matheny, cofounder and director of New Harvest, a nonprofit group forming a network of researchers and spreading information about cultured or in vitro meat.
At meeting in Norway last month sponsored by the In Vitro Meat Consortium, a group of universities and others studying the idea, “the consensus was encouraging that this is a technology that probably could be developed in the five-to-10-year time frame,” says Mr. Matheny, who is also a PhD candidate in public health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Those at the meeting also heard about a promising paper on the economics of creating meat in a lab rather than growing it in a barnyard. The study, which assumes that the process would involve a mix of current and conceivable future technologies, shows that a cultured meat product could be price competitive with conventional meat, Matheny says.
Europe is the hotbed for this kind of research, with government-funded Dutch researchers taking the lead. In that densely populated country, “If you’re a half a kilometer from a pig farm, you’re going to notice,” Matheny says.
But researchers don’t envision creating faux chicken wings or a T-bone steak. “The technology to produce something like that doesn’t exist, nor is it clear when something like that would exist,” Matheny says.
Instead, they are trying to create a lab-grown version of ground meat, the kind found in hamburgers, sausages, and chicken nuggets. Such products account for about half of all meat consumed today, Matheny says.
Roughly 56 million farm animals worldwide are slaughtered for human consumption each year, says a 2006 report from the United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Raising livestock, it said, accounts for 18 percent of the human-caused greenhouse gases that cause global warming. That’s a greater share than all forms of transportation combined.
Demand for meat is expected to boom in coming decades, with the number of livestock doubling by 2050, the UN report concludes, as workers in rising economies such as China and India acquire the taste for animal flesh.