Sustainable America Blog

Frankenburger or Food of The Future?

Photo Credit: kaibara87 via Compfight cc

This week, scientists revealed the result of a two-year project that cost Google founder Sergey Brin $325,000 – a single hamburger. But this isn’t just any burger, this is the world’s first in-vitro burger. Grown in a lab, using stem cells from a cow shoulder muscle, this burger is being hailed as the future of food by many. Made of 100% actual beef, plus breadcrumbs and seasonings like any other burger, the beef in this burger was simply grown outside of the cow.

Dr. Mark Post, the scientist who created the hamburger, told the New York Times that Brin got involved with the project because he “shares the same concerns about the sustainability of meat production and animal welfare.” As global meat production and consumption continue to rise, creating meat without all of the inputs of conventional meat production (feed, water, sanitation, slaughter, butchering, etc.) could be a breakthrough for the sustainability of meat. A recent study conducted at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit showed that the environmental impacts of cultured meat production – such as land, water and energy use – are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat. Specifically, scientists found that growing meats in-vitro requires 7–45% less energy, 99% less land, and 82–96% less water and emits 78–96% less greenhouse gas (depending on the product compared) than conventionally produced animal meat.

Animal welfare groups have applauded the lab-grown burger as well. “In-vitro technology will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement. “It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”

The burger was cooked and eaten in front of television cameras, then tasted by food writer Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler, who “gave it good marks for texture but agreed there was something missing,” according to CBC News. One of the key elements missing is fat, a primary ingredient in any tasty burger. Post concluded that he was very happy with the first taste test, acknowledging that the burger wasn’t perfect, “but it’s a good start.”

Though the cost of producing meat in the laboratory is high right now, Post says that as the technique is perfected and scaled up, he expects lab-grown beef to eventually be as cheap as, if not cheaper than, the “real” thing.

Sustainable America supports innovation in the food system. Lab-grown meats are an exciting new concept that could help increase food production and decrease oil consumption in the U.S. by making prime farm land available for the growth of food and using less energy and water than conventional meat production. This technology has a long way to go, but it is an interesting concept that bears watching.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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