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The new American hamburger...?

Photo by Victoria Henderson via Flickr.
Photo by Victoria Henderson via Flickr.

Photo by Victoria Henderson via Flickr.

Twenty six billion pounds. That’s roughly how much beef Americans consume each year. We get it from some 33 million cows that are largely raised in centralized, industrial feed operations that collectively use more energy, water, and land per calorie produced than any other food group out there.

So when I heard the news of the lab-grown beef the other day, I was intrigued. With a bit more work to make it tastier and cheaper, the synthetic meat could one day displace concentrated animal feedlot operations, or CAFOs. The turn would mean good things for cows, the environment, and the world’s rapidly growing number of mouths to feed.

Northeastern professor of chemical engineering Shashi Murthy knows a thing or two about growing tissue in the lab. Over the last decade he’s been working to isolate undifferentiated stem cells from various tissue types that are then allowed to grow and proliferate to form new tissue. The process is not simple, Murthy explained. It involves several steps with very picky reagents, which require precise environmental conditions, such as temperature and oxygen levels.

“If you were to work to try to commercialize that, I can easily imagine the whole process would be far more expensive than just raising cows,” he said. If the current process were to be scaled up, it would cost about $30 a pound, according to the New York Times. Further, due to agricultural subsidies, conventionally raised beef is artificially inexpensive, said philosophy professor Ron Sandler. Synthetic beef likely can’t compete with that.

But, says civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Matthew Eckelman, what you spend in dollars could be overcome by the ecological improvements of switching away from CAFOs, which are massively inefficient in their use of resources. After all, the land on which we depend has significant, inherent value of its own. And not only that, he continued, there are also significant economic and environmental damages associated with pollution from CAFOs, overgrazing, and deforestation to create pasture land.

“Taste aside, I think this is a promising development in general,” said Eckelman, whose chief specialty is analyzing the environmental costs and benefits of various products from production to disposal. One such study published by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam “makes a compelling case for reduced environmental impacts,” said Eckelman.

Of course, that study was sponsored by New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization whose very mission is to promote alternative sources of meat. Also, since the large-scale synthetic meat industry doesn’t even exist yet, the study had to be based on “many assumptions” that have “high uncertainty,” according to its authors.

What Sandler doesn’t understand is why we’re spending oodles of money on finding new ways to make meat when “there’s a really easy, simple, efficient, proven, available solution” already out there for the problem of the world’s seven billion hungry humans. “It’s much easier, it’s much less expensive, it requires no new technology, it’s perfectly healthy, and it’s yummy.” Eat less meat. He’s not saying we all have to become herbivores, but if we each reduced our meat consumption by a third, we’d likely see the same environmental savings reaped by synthetic meat.

“But given our population and the projected shift toward high-protein diets in many parts of the world,” Eckelman argued, “it seems likely that there will be large increases in industrial meat production.” If that happens, then synthetic meat would be a great solution…if it could displace the current centralized meat industry—which is tastier and cheaper.

Even though American meat consumption is staggeringly high, we have been slowing down on our red meat rave in recent decades, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Sandler thinks this is in part due to a growing concern for where our food comes from and what goes into making it. The locavore, real, and slow food movements have been powerful enough to coax McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s into sending lean finely textured beef (also lovingly known as “pink slime”) the way of the dodo bird. “And that’s actually from a cow,” he said.

“If people are having trouble with the idea of finely textured beef because it doesn’t fit their conception of what meat’s supposed to be like,” Sandler continued, “maybe that’s a good indication of the challenges that synthetic meat is going to have being accepted by the market.”

And in the end, isn’t that what this whole conversation really comes down to?

With the population steadily rising, we are going to need some way to feed ourselves. We can’t all live off grass fed beef; there just isn’t enough planet to support that many cows. But outside of government food rations, any changes in the way we eat are going to be determined by what we buy. Until researchers can make synthetic meat that tastes good and is not prohibitively expensive, all the other benefits of animal welfare, feeding the hungry, and saving the planet, probably won’t get too far.

Oh, and by the way, according to Murthy, the animal welfare argument is sort of moot anyway: A main ingredient in standard cell culture media, which the cells need to grow in a petri dish, is fetal bovine serum—the liquid part of calf’s blood.

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