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The Green Life: Lab-Grown Burgers: Would You Eat One?

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September 01, 2011

Lab-Grown Burgers: Would You Eat One?

Burger Humans have done a lot of strange things with food. We’ve domesticated animals, freeze-dried mac 'n' cheese for space flight, genetically engineered rice, and bred the seeds out of watermelons. But researchers, convening this week at the European Science Foundation, are on the verge of another innovation with enormous potential impact: in vitro meat.

Soon you may be able to bite into a juicy hamburger and know that it didn't come from a slaughterhouse. That it would have come from a laboratory is more disturbing to some people, but the benefits of in vitro meat are clear: The global livestock industry accounts for almost 20% of greenhouse gases and 40% of anthropogenic methane. Cattle consume almost 10% of our freshwater. In vitro meat will need 99% less land and could reduce emissions by a comparable percentage. Not to mention the most obvious reason for eating in vitro meat: it'll help end animal cruelty.

A lab-grown burger begins with muscle stem cells, which can be harvested without harming the animal. The stem cells are then grown on a biodegradable scaffolding (think very tiny skeleton), exercised with electrical impulses, and “fed” with nutrient-rich solutions. There are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. For one, no one has ever tasted the meat, though scientists fervently claim it'll taste exactly the same. And commercial production is currently super-expensive: $1 million to turn out a 250-gram piece of beef. Scientists haven’t worked out the ideal nutrient source, either; right now, they're nourishing the cells with fetal serum. In order to stay truly “vegetarian,” they’re looking at other options, like amino-acid-rich cyanobacteria.

Scientists hope that within a year, synthetic burgers should be ready for taste-testing and, eventually, commercial rollout. Though scientists don’t appreciate it being called "synthetic." As one told New Yorker reporter Michael Specter, "This isn't synthetic. It's organic. It's meat. It's two meat cells growing to become more meat cells." Is that any more unnatural than stuffing chickens into a slaughterhouse and pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics? At the very least, in vitro meat is food for thought.

--Christa Morris


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