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Cooking Up ‘Real’ Meat Without Animals

Cultured lab-grown burgers, sausages coming closer

Samples of cultured meat recently grown in a laboratory at the University of Maastricht

It’s the holy grail of animal protection and one of the key ways to protect the planet: cultured meat, grown in laboratories from cultured animal cells. And it’s coming closer.

Cultured meat is the big hope for feeding and ever-increasing population of humans while sparing the lives of billions of animals a year and protecting the environment, too.

Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, said last week he hopes to publicly unveil a first sample soon.

“The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it’s possible,” he told Reuters. “I believe I can do this in the coming year.”

Cultured meat is a real animal product, but one that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

This is a whole different concept from vegan burgers, which involve no meat products at all. (And many “veggie” burgers have egg and dairy ingredients hidden in them.) Cultured meat, by contrast, is a real animal product, but one that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

Using stem cells harvested from leftover animal material, scientists like Post feed them with sugars, amino acids, lipids, minerals and other nutrients.

Post says the first burger will be very expensive to make – nearly $350,000. But that’s including all the research that’s gone into making it. Once you’re able to start mass-producing the meat, the costs drop dramatically.

(And if the whole idea sounds at all unappetizing, then you’ve never seen what goes on in the average factory farm.)

Protecting the environment

In terms of protecting the environment and saving our dwindling supplies of fresh water, cultured meat has huge advantages. For every 15 grams of edible meat, you need to feed the animals 100 grams of vegetable protein.

“Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable. Right now we are using more than 50 percent of all our agricultural land for livestock. We have to come up with alternatives.”

According to the World Health Organization, annual meat production is projected to increase from 218 million tons in 1999 to 376 million tons by 2030, and continuing to rise after that.

“Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable,” Post said. “Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view. Right now we are using more than 50 percent of all our agricultural land for livestock. We have to come up with alternatives.”

According to a 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, industrialized agriculture contributes on a “massive scale” to climate change, air pollution, land degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline. The report, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, said the meat industry contributes about 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and this proportion is expected to grow as consumers in fast-developing countries like China and India eat more meat.

The 400-page report concluded that livestock, primarily cattle, are responsible for 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together. It said that ranching is the major driver of deforestation, and that overgrazing is turning a fifth of all pastures and ranges into desert. It takes 990 quarts of water to produce a single quart of milk. And waste products, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones pollute wells and aquifers, and find their way to other crops, leading to outbreaks of deadly diseases, and then washing down to the sea, killing coral reefs and creating dead zones, including one in the Gulf of Mexico, that now exceeds 15,000 square miles.

Graph by Hanna Tuomist

Cultured meat, on the other hand, has a minimal impact on the environment. A graph by Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that growing our favorite meats in-vitro would use 35 to 60 percent less energy, emit 80 to 95 percent less greenhouse gas and use around 98 percent less land than conventionally produced animal meat.

Post concedes that creating T-bone steaks will take many more years to develop. The first cultured products will be items like sausages and burgers. But these will have the im ediate advantage of being much healthier that factory-farm products, with less saturated and more polyunsaturated fat, for example, or more nutrients.

And best of all, no animals will be harmed.