Home » Science & Technology » The most pricey meatball in the world isn't at a Michelin restaurant. It's lab-grown

The most pricey meatball in the world isn't at a Michelin restaurant. It's lab-grown

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:37 IST

Finally there's going to be beef that both vegetarians and their more carnivorous counterparts can agree with. And it's going to be lab grown.

Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based startup, recently unveiled what they called "the world's first cultured meatball". Using laboratory bio-reactors, the company was able to multiply cow cells to form muscle tissue which, when layered together, essentially gives you beef. Or, as it's more casually known, shmeat (sheets of lab grown meat).

It isn't just beef either. Memphis Meats, who just received $2 million in seed funding, have also toyed with chicken and pork. It sounds futuristic, but it isn't the newest concept.

Beefing Up

In 2013, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, unveiled a $330,000 lab-grown beef burger. A little rich for my taste, but not Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose deep pockets bankrolled the experiment.

With a price tag that astronomical and the lukewarm review it got, you'd imagine that Post's lab-grown burger will never be commercially viable. But the process has only become more feasible in the time since and comparatively, Memphis Meats' beef cost a paltry $18,000 a pound.

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While it's a far cry from the regular 4-dollars-a-pound for beef in the US, it's still a step closer to relatively affordable consumption. In fact, both Post's lab, now a business of it's own called Mosa Meats, as well as Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti, expect to have a commercial product within five years.

Granted, any lab-grown meat in the next five years will only be affordable to very high-end customers. Even so, Post expects that they'll be able to produce beef en masse in about 20 years.

Valeti is also confident that in-vitro meat is the way of the future. In a conversation with the Daily Mail he stated that, "cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable." He described in-vitro meats as the "future of meat."

Need for Shmeat

According to the World Bank, the world needs to up it's current food production by 50% by 2050 to support the 9 billion people estimated to be walking the planet by then. That's a tough ask considering we're actually blowing through resources like land and water, faster than ever before.

At the same time, crop yields are also expected to drop 25% thanks to the gift that keeps giving, climate change.

With that being the case, it's no wonder that we're now resorting to massive animal cloning labs and robotised lettuce factories to ramp up our food production. But let's face it, we need all the food we can get, and in-vitro meat could be a game-changer, not just nutritionally, but also environmentally.

Memphis Meats just unveiled the world's first lab-grown meatball and it could be the future for meat eaters.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the animal livestock sector contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than transport. What's worse, livestock emissions make up 40% of the methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. Both these are far more harmful climate change agents than CO2. Nitrous oxide alone is about 300 times more harmful than CO2 emissions. In-vitro meat, by taking the rearing of animals out of the process, is able to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions.

While no actual industrial setup exists, an independent study showed that producing meat in-vitro would produce 96% less greenhouse gases than traditional meat production.

Producing meat is also a highly fossil-fuel intensive process. One kilocalorie of meat protein requires the consumption of almost 25 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy. If in-vitro farming comes up, it trumps on this front too, requiring just over half as much fossil fuel consumption.

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In terms of land too, a vital factor in an increasingly crowded world, in-vitro farming stands well ahead, requiring just 1% of the land needed for traditional meat production.

At a time when the global appetite for meat is only rising and the livestock sector is the fastest growing agriculture sub-sector, it seems like a godsend.

Cash cow or bullshit?

Some critics look at lab-grown meat and automatically rubbish it as "not meat". Which is true to an extent. Meat is more than just plain muscle tissue. In fact, one of the criticisms of Post's $330,000 burger was the lack of fat. But, at least on that front, it looks like in vitro meat will win out.

lab meat embed

Post's own lab is looking at ways to culture fatty tissue and blend it with the muscle tissue. They're also looking at ways to improve the iron content, a vital step in making the lab-grown meat taste more like the real deal.

$18,000 a pound for lab-grown beef. Expensive, but shmeat may be the solution for the meat industry.

Another drawback, is that the process is not entirely free of animals. The initial ingredient of the process is bovine fetal serum, extracted, as you may have guessed, from the foetuses of unborn calves. This could affect the public perception of shmeat as cruelty-free. However, scientists are working on a vegetarian alternative that would also allow them to eliminate the use of antibiotics from the process altogether.

The biggest problem, however, will be the scalability of the process. The cells involved in the process need to be in a highly oxygenated environment, meaning that we will only ever be able to grow thin sheets of meat. The need to keep the cells in an impeccably sterile and controlled environment may also lead to far higher energy costs than initially predicted.

Apart from making it commercially less viable, such a scenario would also make it less green than the shmeat industry would like you to believe.

Ultimately, while its other drawbacks look set to be solved in time through science, it may be the scalability that ultimately ensures that lab-grown meats stay in labs and not kitchens.

Edited by Anna Verghese

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First published: 8 February 2016, 8:14 IST