You Could Be Eating Lab-Grown Burgers by 2020

October 28, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

A burger grown from stem cells in a petri dish.
Photo credit: David Parry / PA Wire

Burgers grown from real beef stem cells are the future, and the environmental impact could be tremendous.

Beef production takes an incredibly expensive toll on the environment — 1,800 gallons of water are needed to produce just one pound of grain-fed beef. On top of that, 6.5 pounds of greenhouse gases are released for each quarter-pounder burger that’s produced, according to a video by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Basically, your cheeseburger may be tasty, but it’s leaving behind a massive environmental footprint.

A possible solution? Burgers of the future may be grown in labs, and the Dutch scientists who are leading the movement believe they could hit the market in just five years. The lab-grown meat is made from real beef stem cells, and was first produced in 2013 at a steep price of $325,000. If you have $325K to drop on a burger, by all means, bite in — hopefully it would be the juiciest, tastiest burger in all the land. But for the rest of us, the good news is that the cost of a lab-grown burger patty dropped to about $11 back in April.

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Amazingly, 10,000 kilos (22,046 pounds) of meat can be produced from the stem cells of a small piece of cow muscle, and the technology continues to advance. Researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the scientists who produced the first lab-grown burger, are confident we’ll be biting into burgers made from cultured muscle tissue cells much sooner than the previous estimates of 20 to 30 years. In an interview with the BBC, Mark Post, the Maastricht University Professor in charge of the project, said he’s confident they will have the meat on the market in just five years.

To produce the burgers, stem cells are extracted from cows in a quick and harmless procedure. Then, the cells are given nutrients and chemicals for several weeks to encourage growth, and once the cells number in the millions, they’re moved to smaller dishes to be developed into smaller strips of muscle. Then, the strips are mixed with fat and layered together, and tada! You have a lab-grown burger.

Peter Verstrate, the head of the new company called Mosa Meat (formed with Mark Post and Maastricht University), plans to use tissue engineering technologies to improve the taste and texture of the burgers — hopefully to the point where there’s virtually no difference between the experience of eating a lab-grown burger versus a regular one.

"I feel extremely excited about the prospect of this product being on sale," Verstrate told the BBC. "And I am confident that when it is offered as an alternative to meat that increasing numbers of people will find it hard not to buy our product for ethical reasons."

If society makes the shift to eating lab-grown burgers, the environmental impacts would be colossal. In comparison to meats like pork and chicken, beef requires on average 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water. Beef also requires much more nitrogen fertilizer, and in addition to the grave environmental impacts, it’s no secret that some cattle lead short and miserable lives.

ScienceAlert reports that eating less beef is actually better for the environment than giving up cars. But since most people likely feel like they can’t part with their beloved steaks and burgers altogether, a lab-grown alternative with realistic taste and texture could drastically reduce our environmental damage. So, grill masters of the future may very well be flipping lab-grown burgers, and hopefully they taste just as juicy and delectable as the not-so-environmentally-friendly ones today.

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