Above: Test-tube meat (© istockphoto.com/anyaivanova)

Throwing a hamburger on the barbecue is a quintessential summer activity. Now, scientists are working to make burgers more eco-friendly by producing beef in a lab using stem cells, instead of relying on livestock farming.

You may have heard stem cells touted as the future of transplant medicine, since they can be used to grow new organs. But they can also be used to grow something less medical and more edible, as demonstrated by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Did you know? Stem cells are cells within the body that can grown and divide into almost anything. They are the master cells of the body, capable to growing into and repairing all organs and tissues.Stem cells were extracted from cattle and grown into small rings, about one centimeter in diameter and a few millimeters thick. These rings were then stored in a freezer until there were enough to make an entire burger patty. The whole process took about three months and some 20,000 muscle fibers.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, provided 250,000 euros (about $330,000) in funding to the project. Considering that only a single patty was produced, that's one expensive meal! Nevertheless, the experiment showed that meat could be produced without the negative environmental impacts associated with livestock farming.

In fact, an independent study found that a lab-grown burger requires 45% less energy to produce than its farm-grown counterpart. Furthermore, producing meat in a lab could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96% and land use by 99%. Proponents say these benefits will help establish lab-grown meat as an attractive option as demand for meat grows.

Critics are quick to point out that simply reducing meat consumption would achieve the same goals, without the need for large-scale meat-producing laboratories. Large amounts of cash would also be required to produce, test, and eventually market synthetic meat.

Did you know? The average Canadian adult eats about 200 grams of meat a day, or 72 kg a year. That’s close to the average weight of an adult human. Furthermore, there are psychological obstacles to overcome. At least initially, most people are wary of eating food that has been grown in a lab rather than on a farm. Of course, this initial skepticism has a lot to do with the fact that lab-grown burgers have yet to undergo significant testing by any food regulatory agency.

The taste will also need to be improved. The test burger had breadcrumbs, caramel, and saffron mixed in for taste, as well as beetroot juice for colour. Yet both taste testers, Austrian food scientist Hanni Ruetzler and American journalist Josh Schonwald, ate less than half of the patty. There are plans to include fat cells in future versions to give the patty a more authentic flavor.

If you’re wary about lab-grown burgers, rest assured that they are many years away from being commercially available. Not only is more research required, but regulations need to be put in place before synthetic meat can begin to offset the environmental impact of livestock farming and help feed an ever-growing world population.


News websites

A lab grown burger gets a taste test (Henry Fountain, The New York Times) World's 1st lab-grown burger cooked and eaten (CBC News) World's first lab-grown burger to be cooked and eaten (Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)

Government publications

Overview of Canadians’ Eating Habits (Didier Garriguet, Statistics Canada)

Shakib Rahman

 Shakib Rahman is a coordinator with Let's Talk Science at the UofA.  He an avid soccer player and a sports nut in general.  He also has a a passion for science, science literature and TV. In his spare time, he writes science articles, some of which you can read here at CurioCity.

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