Lab Meat For Locavores

by Jonah Shepp

Scientists have proposed a way to make lab-grown meat commercially viable:

1400604327774477As noted, it’s already possible to make meat from stem cells. The technique was devised by Maastricht University physiologist Mark Post, who assembled a 5-oz beef patty from thousands of tiny meat strips cultured from the stem cells of a single cow. It’s a technological advance that ScienceNow‘s Kai Kupferschmidt believes could kickstart “the biggest agricultural revolution since the domestication of livestock.”

But according to biologists Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper in a new Science & Society paper, though the potential advantages of cultured meat are clear, there’s no guarantee that people will want to eat it. The mode of production, they argue, makes a difference for appreciation. To that end, they’ve developed an eco-friendly model for producing greener, ethical meat — one that involves small-scale local factories that are not only technologically feasible, but also socially acceptable. As per the title of their paper, they’re hoping to see “every village [with] its own factory.”

Jason Koebler would eat that meat:

Tramper estimates that a normal 20-cubic meter bioreactor, which is the standard for growing cultured animal cells, could easily supply a village of roughly 2,560 people with meat for a year. But creating and selling the meat at the Netherlands’ price of about €5 per kilogram would only yield €128,000 a year “hardly enough to pay the salary of one ‘butcher’ and his/her assistant.” Adding in costs of of growth medium and lab equipment, the price for cultured minced meat would go up to at least €8 per kilogram, which complicates things further.

But at the end of the day, you’re looking at paying roughly $5 a pound for hamburger meat—that’s not totally insane, and that’s with current technology. Cultivating and growing animal muscle cells is a well-understood process, and the technical challenges have been mostly surmounted. It’s also a far superior option to factory-farmed meat, morally speaken. Given all that that, is there any doubt that someone in Brooklyn sets up a lab-grown meat club in the next couple years? I’d be down, and I’d bet that 2,500 other New Yorkers would be, too.

Not everyone is on board with the lab-meat movement, though:

Some critics of industrial livestock operations are intensely skeptical that cultured meat is the solution. Food activist Danielle Nierenberg thinks the “huge yuck factor” is going to limit the future of “petri dish meat.”

“People who wouldn’t eat tofu a few years ago, now they’re going to eat meat grown in a lab?” she asks. A better future, Nierenberg and others argue, would require some degree of returning to the past—eating less meat, as we used to, and producing it in a less intensive way, on farms rather than feedlots.