Scientists Grow Synthetic Meat in Laboratory: Could It Save Our Planet, or at Least Our Vegetarians?

By Anthony Smith on August 13, 2012 12:33 PM EDT

cow
Beef without cows. (Photo: Creative Commons: gb_packards)

Do you like eating delicious food but hate when it comes from natural sources? Baby, your prayers have been answered!

Gabor Forgacs, a scientist at the University of Missouri who specializes in tissue engineering, claims that he is closer than anyone before him has ever come to figuring out a way to make lab-grown meat that's not only commercially viable for distributors, supermarkets, and consumers, but darn tasty, too!

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At the TEDMED conference in 2011, in front of a room filled with curious peers and silent detractors, Mr. Forgacs, there on behalf of his company Modern Meadows, received the distinct and special honor of becoming the first United States scientist to publicly eat some of his self-produced meat. Since then, Meadows has seen an influx of capital, including a significant investment from the United States Department of Agriculture. 

How does he do it? Technically, the idea to make meat the same way we'd make a tiny, vinegary volcanic eruption has been around since the turn of the century. The idea's sort of a simple one: a scientist growing synthetic meat in a laboratory would find himself using a small amount of cells taken from an animal to grow lumps of that animal's muscle tissue which, after a little barbecue sauce and some salt and pepper, could then be used in burgers, hot dogs, and stir-fries.

Sound simple? Unfortunately, trials have been incredibly expensive to produce, yielded inedible lumps of animal muscle, or some combination of the two. Right now, Mr. Forgacs's synthetic meat comes close to $125-$395 a kilo. It's close to the price of Kobe beef, and it probably doesn't taste half as good. Compound that with the fact that most Americans balk at paying eleven dollars or so for a good quality steak and you have yourself a price point that has nothing to do with the economic state of this country.

There's the added problem, too, of whether or not American consumers will welcome cowless beef into their homes with open arms, or if they'll accuse scientists of playing God, or otherwise be unsettled by the idea that meat was grown in a laboratory for our consumption.

But when you weigh that initial freakout against the benefits of eating synthetic meats, Forgacs's Chicken McNothings become a little easier to swallow. We're living in a world wherein the emissions from our myriads of commercials cows' poops are contributing significantly to climate change. It's gotten so serious that certain European countries are investing in microfarming, or seeing if bugs can be used as a viable source of protein and the backbone of meat-based foodstuffs like sausage. Perhaps, in this instance, synthetic meats are the lesser of two evils.

Plus, vegetarians can probably eat it too, considering nothing died on its way to the plate.

But as long as the microfarming of bugs is infinitely cheaper, given the fact that bugs already exist and they're incredibly cheap to feed and raise (most American homes feed colonies of bugs without even realizing they're doing it), then bugs are a lot closer to our plates than anything other alternative.

Looks like Forgacs has a lot on his plate, and we're not even talking the stuff he grew himself.

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