Grow-your-own beef could help save the planet

Lab-cultured meat reduces land and water use by 90 per cent and energy use by 70 per cent compared to traditional methods of herd farming, claims scientist

Good news for all environment-conscious carnivores: lab-grown beef and leather could be an alternative to resource-intensive traditional livestock farming.

Lab-cultured meat reduces land and water use by 90 per cent and energy use by 70 per cent compared to traditional methods of herd farming, said agricultural scientist Mark Post, freeing up land and resources for the growing global population.

Professor Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, used skeletal muscle cells from cows to grow meat in a laboratory, which he fashioned into the world’s first burger, without ever seeing a blade of grass. The burger, which was first cooked and tasted in August last year by food critics in the UK, was created using stem cell research designed to regenerate damaged organs.

“We are a species designed to eat meat,” said Post, speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) in Abu Dhabi. “We can’t all become vegetarian. So one of the options is to culture meat. In the future, you could feed 40,000 people a year from a [space] half the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Man’s love for meat is causing problems for our planet Post said. Animal husbandry contributes 18 per cent of all carbon emissions and each pound of meat produced soaks up an astounding 15 gallons of water. New ways of producing meat are needed to create growing demand.

The first ‘proof of concept’ lab burger, made of 10,000 fibres and 3 billion cultured cells, cost €250,000 (about $337,000) to produce. Post hopes the cost will come down to $65 per kilo over the next two to three years as cultured production increases.

Cost is not the only challenge. The food critics at the pilot test, the first to taste the lab-grown meat, found the beef bland and less juicy than a usual burger.  

More challenging, however, is what Post describes as the ‘yuck’ factor. People may be reluctant to eat meat that has been grown in artificial conditions, or so-called ‘Frankenstein foods’. Still, 68 per cent of British and 63 per cent of Dutch people polled after the pilot test said they would try cultured beef – welcome news for Post’s team.

Lab-produced leather, too, has its benefits over traditional reliance on livestock: the material can be made to order in the exact quantities needed – reducing waste – and without flaws such as insect bites, said entrepreneur Andras Forgacs, co-founder of tissue engineering company Modern Meadow. It could be an important advance for the global luggage and leather good industry, set to grow to $91.2 billion by 2018, according to research firm Lucintel.

Scientists predict that demand for meat will double by 2050 as the world population grows from 7 to 9 billion, particularly as rising wealth in China and India leads to more meat-eating diets.