The taste-testers of Google founder Sergey Brin’s lab-grown burger called it cake-like and “very close to meat” -- perhaps not the most encouraging response to a $332,000 investment. But Brin isn't alone in making investments in artificial or lab-grown animal products, other tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Peter Thiel have put their money into developing alternatives to the traditional raising livestock method. Why? Because they just might be the future of food.
Brin says he was partially motivated to invest in his lab-grown burger ventures by animal welfare concerns, saying that people imagine "pristine farms" while he's "not comfortable" with the reality of factory farming conditions. But he also thinks synthetic meat is a "transformative" technology on the "cusp of viability," even if it sounds like science fiction to the general public.
But thanks to Brin's investment in the work of Mark Post of Maastricht University, it's no longer science fiction even if it's still decades from being on the consumer market. To grow the meat, Post took muscle stem cells from living cows via a biopsy and fed it with fetal bovine serum. One barrier to the process is the $250 per liter cost of the serum, which can require as many as three cow fetuses to produce a liter.
Paypal co-founder and early Facebook backer Thiel's investment in lab-grown meat was very similar: His philanthropic venture Breakout Labs made a grant to a company called Modern Meadow that creates leather and food via tissue engineering in 2012. Breakout Labs focuses its giving on "radical" research at early-stage companies that are less attractive to traditional sources like venture capitalists and federal funding.
Gates is backing a slightly different option: Plant-based animal product replacements. He is an investor in food start-up Hampton Creek which is creating plant protein-based substitutes for eggs and has praised meat substitute creator Beyond Meat. He explained his reasoning in a Gates Notes post earlier this year:
[R]aising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can't ask everyone to become vegetarians. We need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.
Meat production does use significantly more resources than plant-based agriculture. A 2006 United Nations' report called livestock a substantial contributor to "climate change and air pollution, to land, soil, and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity." But worldwide demand for meat continues to rise and production is projected to double by 2050, mostly driven by developing countries where per capita consumption has doubled since 1980.
Luckily, tech entrepreneurs are seeing the meat problem as an opportunity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Hampton Creek as Hampton Farms. We regret the error.