When, if ever, will we eat lab-grown meat? It's still early enough in 2014 for predictions of the year to come, and late 2013 saw the unveiling of the world's first hamburger made of laboratory-cultured animal protein, leading to a frenzy of journalistic coverage and even one short article that collected past predictions for when "cultured meat" might reach supermarket shelves. ("Cultured meat" is the term of preference among the substance's promoters, over "schmeat," "lab meat," and of course "frankenmeat.")
Those skeptical about the viability of meat grown in laboratories can look back with satisfaction at a long history of "foods of the future" that never came to pass: the nineteenth century boasted fantasies of meals-in-a-pill, fantasies that persisted into the Jetsons visions of mid-twentieth-century America, and cultured meat was itself dreamed about many decades ago.
The mandatory citation is to Winston Churchill, who in his "Fifty Years Hence" of 1932 imagined a 1982 of artificial chicken that would be more efficient because one would no longer have to grow an entire bird, but just the breast. Indeed, the thought of avoiding the inefficiency and waste - not to mention the impressive environmental damage - of animal agriculture, is one of the driving ideas of cultured meat research.
The 1980s did give us cyberpunk fiction and its dismal predictions about the future of food - William Gibson is one of the many science fiction writers to mention artificial meat in a less optimistic register, and Margaret Atwood may be the contemporary author best known for it - but Churchill's predictions, like those of so many others, came to naught. And there are commentators who think that cultured meat will never really happen, either because of insuperable technical challenges or the impossibility of producing the substance cheaply enough.
Literally predicting the future of cultured meat is of course impossible, but since August 2013's hamburger demonstration in London, where the work of Professor Mark Post's laboratory was unveiled, speculations have abounded. There are conferences and symposia on cultured meat, and the Dutch arts collective Next Nature is producing a Cultured Meat Cookbook - actually a project meant to grow the conversation, rather than provide cooking instructions for an as-yet-unavailable ingredient.
The organization New Harvest acts as a hub connecting researchers and other interested parties, and encouraging discussions of cultured meat. We're in what Disney would call the "Imagineering" stage, in other words, and some of Silicon Valley's biggest investors are starting to contribute to the cause. If true prediction is beyond our powers, a few things do seem certain, and we can clear up a few misconceptions about cultured meat now:
- Cultured meat is not going to appear on your supermarket shelves in 2014. Or in 2015. While no prediction is reliable, the most wildly optimistic promoters of the technology don't think it will reach markets for another ten years. Twenty seems more likely.
- Cultured meat is animal flesh based on real animal cells, not fully synthetic or based on vegetable protein (but vegetable meat substitutes are also reaching new and impressive levels of development) The process by which cultured meat is made, is somewhat complex (you can watch a cartoon, produced for Mark Post's group, here).
- While no animals need to be killed to harvest the cells used for cultured meat, current techniques also employ serum taken from fetal animals - truly kill-free meat would be possible if scientists devised a substitute, and some think that this is possible.
If cultured meat is very much an "emerging" technology, the creation of which demands that scientists overcome serious technical challenges and that marketers convince a skeptical public to overcome their inevitable "yuck factor," there are reasons why scientists, entrepreneurs and pundits keep pushing.
For some, cultured meat promises a world in which animals need not die in the vast numbers they now do, for our nutrition and pleasure. In 2008 PETA announced a $1 Million prize that would go to the first group that brought a convincing chicken nugget substitute to market - with a close date of 2012 (now extended to March 4, 2014) for the contest.
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Others are motivated by the high environmental cost of animal agriculture, which produces a staggering amount of pollution and uses land inefficiently. Experts expect meat consumption to increase with global population growth, creating more demand for meat and entailing greater and greater environmental costs. By growing meat in laboratories rather than on the hoof, much of that could be avoided.
Thus if the real future of cultured meat is inscrutable, it is easy to see why we might reach for dreams of safe, kill-free beef, chicken, pork or fish. Many of us eat well in Los Angeles - so well, in fact, that it can be hard to remember that our food infrastructure is strained to the breaking point, and the future needs all the help it can get.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Ben tweets at @benwurgaft, conducts research on lab-grown meat at MIT, and writes at East Side L.A. cafes. His work can be found in Gastronomica, Meatpaper and other publications.