Where’s the beef? It’s in the lab.

The world’s first-ever lab-grown hamburger made its culinary debut in London on Monday, and according to the team of elite scientific taste testers assembled in a TV kitchen studio, it actually looked, smelled and tasted “just like a burger.”

Yes, this burger – grown from the stem cells of a cow – was a bit blander than what you might pick up at one of the many burger chains now dotting the national landscape. But there are hopeful signs that this lab-grown burger is more than just a TV stunt or an infomercial for stem cell research. Quite possibly, the “test-tube burger” may be the future of food in a world where population growth always appears ready to outstrip the planet’s limited resources.

In the short term, of course, nobody expects to be growing enough food in the lab to feed even a modest-sized family of four. But the point of the project – financed with $330,000 of Sergey Brin’s personal Google fortune – was to lay the groundwork for technological solutions in a future world in which humanity has seriously depleted the earth’s resources. According to one Oxford researcher, lab-grown meat has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent and water use by 90 percent. And, if a few more tweaks are made, the nutritional value of lab-grown meat will be equal to, or even superior to, today’s burger patties. It only takes three months to grow a burger patty from the stem cells of a cow’s shoulder, and that means a greatly reduced environmental impact on the planet.

With such dramatic numbers about the impact of lab-grown beef being batted around by influential researchers, it’s perhaps no surprise that this lab-grown beef is not the only artificial beef that’s potentially headed our way in the near future. Billionaire Peter Thiel is backing a venture to 3D-print beef using narrow sheets of cells. Insert a few food cartridges into a decent-sized Modern Meadow bio-printer, and voila! Out pops a pork chop! The idea of printing food on demand is so intriguing that even NASA has bought into the idea, with a plan to 3D-print pizzas for our astronauts headed to Mars.

That’s assuming, of course, that the 3D printing revolution hasn’t already been hyped to a premature death.

Just in case, there are other plans in the works for artificial beef in the future. If you’re tired of the choice cuts of beef from your local steakhouse, maybe IBM’s Watson supercomputer can help you. According to IBM, the plan is for Watson to produce an array of new tastes using computer algorithms that can delight our taste buds in new and unconventional ways. Presumably, some of these new tastes created by the “flavorbot” will be the equal of today’s pulled pork or hickory-smoked ribs – and will convince carnivores and omnivores to reconsider their meat-eating habits.

What’s surprising about the Dutch lab-grown beef research project is that it has attracted the support of the type of high-profile activists who can doom similar types of scientific projects. In the case of this artificial burger, PETA came out in support of the lab-raised beef, hopeful that it might be a more ethical option than the farm-raised or ranch-raised beef of today.

So, thanks to science, we seem to be on the cusp of taking a 180-degree turn from where we are today. Instead of “farm-raised” or “wild-caught” food, we now have “lab-grown” as a possible option. Instead of food brought to you straight from farm to table, you might soon have the option of food brought to you straight from the lab. Maybe one day, we’ll have local high-tech farmers markets where it will be hip and trendy to meet your local laboratory-farmer and find out which types of cells were used to create your meat.

We keep hearing from the modern-day disciples of Thomas Malthus, who are concerned that the world’s unchecked population growth will soon make it impossible for humanity to feed itself. The promise now is that new technological innovations – like the ability to create meat from the stem cells of cows – will enable us to feed everyone – and to do it in an environmentally-friendly way. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein recently pointed out, the “we’ll think of something” camp of innovators always seems to find a way to out-smart the Malthusians.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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