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?

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
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Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

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