Burgers from the Future

Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers. And we eat even more chicken, though a bit less pork; according to the National Chicken Council (unofficial motto: "B'cawk!"), total beef, pork, and poultry consumption adds up to more than 200 pounds a year for every waddling man, woman, and child in this great nation of ours.

To a lot of people, even those who aren't vegetarians, industrial meat production is a moral compromise at best (and I say that as someone who does eat some kinds of meat). Most of us would just rather not think about the process that produced our chicken cutlet or burger. But what if you could produce the meat without actually killing an animal? And I don't mean some kind of meat substitute made from seaweed and maple bark, but actual meat?

Well science is on the case. There are a number of researchers trying to grow meat in a lab, and one group has just produced their first hamburger. The results? Not perfect, but could be worse:

The world's first beef burger created by stem cells tastes more like cake than steak.

The burger, fried in public in London today, lacks the fattiness of regular meat and tastes more like "an animal-protein cake," according to Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based author and one of two tasting volunteers.

The 5-ounce burger, which cost more than 250,000 euros ($332,000) to produce, was developed by Mark Post of Maastricht University. Google co-founder Sergey Brin funded the research. Post is among scientists including those at Modern Meadow and New Harvest who are experimenting with ways to grow meat in labs as an alternative to raising livestock, which contributes 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 30 percent of the world's ice-free land, according to an Oxford University study.

"We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way," Post said at the event in London today.

Schonwald, the author of a book called "The Taste of Tomorrow," said the steak lacked the fattiness of a regular burger. Hanni Ruetzler, a food scientist and the other tasting volunteer, said the surface was crunchy and the inside was "very close to meat."

Every article I've seen about these attempts mentions the high cost ("Would you pay $300,000 for a burger? Ha ha!"), which is kind of like saying the first iPod cost $50 million or whatever Apple spent developing it. The researchers are obviously just beginning to figure out how to do this; eventually they'll hit upon the most effective process, and then we'll see how it scales up. These first efforts show that the problem is difficult, but a long way from impossible.

I could be wrong of course, but this is one of those technologies that I think is a matter not of if but of when. It may not be possible in 10 or 20 years, but I can't imagine that a couple of centuries from now our descendants will still have huge pens full of millions of cows and pigs milling about as they await their appointment with the brain hammer. At that point, I suspect they'll look back at this time in history, when we slaughtered hundreds of millions of animals for food every year, and wonder how we could have tolerated such a thing.

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