“Fifty years hence,” said Winston Churchill in 1931, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.” How? “By growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
O.K., so Churchill was a politician, not a scientist: 82 years later, our Whoppers, Big Macs and Double Downs are still sourced from livestock. But now, thanks to advances in cell cultivation, researchers are closer than ever to growing real, edible meat in labs. And those Frankenburgers (and Franken-nuggets) might just help save the planet.
Beyond the ethics of raising some 9 billion animals to be killed for food each year in the U.S. — a big issue for vegetarians and some advocacy groups — factory farms produce vast amounts of waste: some 2 trillion pounds of animal waste, which pollutes air and water. And with global demand for meat expected to grow 60% by 2050, the amount of farmland and grain needed to feed those chickens, pigs and cows may be unsustainable.
But producing in vitro meat — muscle tissue that’s cultured from animal cells and grown in a laboratory — has none of those hang-ups. In fact, it’s mouthwateringly efficient compared with existing methods of meat production, using 45% less energy and 99% less land, according to some estimates. It’s even endorsed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In 2008 the advocacy group promised a $1 million prize to the first producer that could mass-market lab-grown meat — proof that vegetarians who currently shun pork might be open to, say, lab-grown bacon.
Nobody has claimed that prize yet. But physiologist Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who have already grown small amounts of meat tissue, say they’re months away from producing the first in vitro burger. Their challenge — aside from convincing consumers that lab meat isn’t as gross as it sounds — will be cost. Proper cell cultivation is pricey (development expenses for the burger are estimated at north of $100,000), so it’ll be tough to scale with conventional farming, which produces 50 billion hamburgers each year in the U.S. If they succeed, though, we may one day be ordering McInVitros. Or, perhaps, a McChurchill.