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Lab-grown meat's steady march to your plate
As costs go down and the benefits become more clear, can we afford not to eat lab-grown meat?
- Just a few years ago, the price of a lab-grown hamburger had five figures.
- Today, that price has gone down to just $11.
- Even if it's cheap, tastes the same, and preserves the environment, will people actually eat meat grown in a lab?
As 2018 wraps up, the average American is poised to have eaten 222 pounds of beef over the course of the year. Accomplishing this dubious achievement meant that every American ate the equivalent of 2.4 quarter-pound burgers a day. So, we can safely say that Americans like their beef.
The trouble with this, though, is that raising cows for beef production is expensive. A typical ranching operation (although they can vary wildly) costs about $266,630 per year for a 300-head herd, including feed, rented pastures, machinery, and other costs. You can cut down on costs with a factory-farming model, but the increased risk of disease and pollution, and the reportedly cruel nature of factory farms make this less appealing.
Regardless of how beef cows are raised for farming, the environmental impact of cow herds is still problematic. Cow farts and burps might seem like a ridiculous concern at first blush, but they contributed 119.1 million tons of methane to the atmosphere in 2011. And keep in mind, methane is about 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the planet.
But we love beef! Some people can probably be persuaded to go vegetarian, vegan, or simply stop eating beef, but not nearly enough to make the right kind of impact. This begs the question: can we have our beef and eat it too?
The benefits of a lab-cooked meal
In a future where most of us eat lab-grown beef, one has to wonder what would happen to all of the cow herds we currently have. Image source: pxhere.com
Lab-grown beef may very well be the path forward. In 2008, it was estimated that just half a pound of lab-grown beef would cost $1 million. Then, on August 5, 2013, the first lab-grown hamburger was eaten. It cost $325,000 and took two years to make. Just two years later, the same amount of lab-grown beef costs about $11 to make.
Lab-grown beef checks almost all of the boxes: it doesn't require animal cruelty, and a study in Environmental Science and Technology showed that it could cut emissions from conventionally produced meat by up to 96 percent and cut down on the land use required for meat production by 99 percent. In the U.S., where cow pastures take up 35 percent of available land — that's about 654 million acres — this could be huge. Imagine having 647 million acres for development, housing, national parks, anything at all!
But does lab-grown beef pass the most crucial test? Does it taste like an honest-to-goodness hamburger? After all, if the cost of beef today doesn't have us converting to vegetarianism in droves, why would we change our behavior for yet another food product that doesn't quite pack the same umami punch?
The taste test
Well, the 2013 lab-grown burger apparently tasted a bit dry. One taste-tester described it as tasting "like an animal-protein cake." So, not very appetizing. However, this isn't a fundamental feature of lab-grown meat, it's a technical problem. As our techniques have improved, so has the taste of the burger. Today, you can even buy lab-grown meat yourself. Mosa Meats and Memphis Meats both sell artificial meat, and the latter was even funded by Bill Gates.
But even if lab-grown meat tastes like the real thing, there's still an aversion to the concept. In article for Engadget, one person said "Cultured meat just isn't normal. […] It's not. There are all kinds of technical reasons why this is not normal." Another said she wouldn't eat lab-grown fish because, "It's disgusting."
To be fair, lab-grown meat does conjure up images of tanks full of fleshy material bubbling away, but it's important to remember that physically, lab-grown beef will be indistinguishable from the real thing. Beef and other meats are a material, like any other, and there's no reason why the source of this material should affect its nature. And there's a strong argument to be made that slaughtering cows to harvest their meat is quite a bit nastier than growing meat in a lab — farms are rife with germs that farmers use a panoply of antibiotics to combat them. In a sterile laboratory, this issue wouldn't be present.
How it works
Image source: Shutterstock
Learning how the meat is actually produced may put some people's mind at ease. Lab-grown meat starts by taking a small sample of cells from a living cow, so it's not actually an artificial, synthetic product; it all starts with stem cells from the animal in question. Stem cells differentiate into a variety of cells throughout the body. Most lab-grown meat production uses myosatellite stem cells, which become the various tissues in muscles.
Then, the stem cells are placed in a medium containing a protein that persuades them to turn into muscle tissue rather than anything else, along with the nutrients they need to grow. A cow does the same process, only it eats feedstock and its body turns that into the appropriate nutrients. The sample is placed in a bioreactor similar to those used to make yogurt or beer. A scaffold made out of an edible material is also included to encourage the meat to grow in the right shape.
You let the whole batch cook for a while, and pretty soon, you've got ground beef. The question is, will we eat it?
- Which world leader predicted lab-grown meat in 1931? ›
- Lab-Grown "Clean Meat" is Almost Here. Will You Eat It? - Big Think ›
- Lab-Grown Meat's Main Obstacle is Quickly Disappearing - Big Think ›
- Price of Lab-Grown Burger Falls from $325K to $11.36 ›
- Lab-grown fish will soon be on our plates—and not a moment too late - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.