The Quest to Engineer a Tasty Cow-Free Burger

Technological innovation is not just about digital disruption, faster computers and killer apps loved by the masses. Biotechnology is driving new waves of medical innovations, agricultural innovations and new food technologies. Consumer preferences are as diverse as the human race. Perhaps surprisingly, inventing new food technologies is a source of connecting closely to consumer preferences, launching highly innovative new brands and capturing market value.

Imagine biting into a juicy beef burger that was produced without killing a cow. Billions of people enjoy the taste of burgers, steaks, bacon and ribs, but meat farming is a major contributor of the greenhouse gases driving climate change. For animal welfare reasons, for planetary health reasons, for human health reasons, a small, but growing, segment of consumers are switching to a more plant-based diet as a personal means to combat the negative effects of meat consumption.

To satisfy consumers who refuse to choose between a liveable planet and a juicy hamburger, scientists and engineers are attempting to efficiently grow convincing imitation meat in the lab using everything from volcano-dwelling microbes to stem cells.


What is lab-grown meat?

Lab-grown meat – also known as “clean meat” or cultured meat – is engineered in a laboratory rather than a field. Lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals, and growing it in bioreactors. “The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste,” says Bill Gates on lab-grown meat. Gates named meat grown in labs as one of his top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2019. Lab-grown meat might not sound appealing, but it could play a huge part in diets in the coming years and decades.

Back in 2013, a Dutch team of scientists showed off the first lab-grown meat burger. The burger patty, which cost more than $325,000 to produce, looked the part, but the taste needed more work. Since then cultured meat has moved along the Gartner hype cycle, but real progress has been achieved.

Several food-tech start-ups have rushed into this market, eager to be the first to create ‘clean’ meat that rivals and replaces favourite meaty dishes. In 2018 the food-tech company Just announced that it created the first chicken nuggets grown from the cells of a chicken feather. The cost for the chicken nugget still needs work. “It’s pretty expensive,” Just’s CEO and founder Josh Tetrick told a UK TV presenter in a 2019 appearance. “That’s probably about a $100 a nugget right there.”

Tyson Foods, one of the biggest US meat processors and Virgin’s Richard Branson have joined Bill Gates by investing undisclosed amounts in Memphis Meats, a leading firm in this space. Memphis Meats is perfecting its lab-grown meatball, which they first created in February 2016.

In December 2018, an Israeli company revealed that it had created the first steak lab-grown from cells to yield a muscle-like texture similar to conventional meat. The steak is not a complete product at this point, with the taste needing some perfecting. Currently, the small strip of steak costs $50 to make, but compared to the Dutch team’s $325,000 cultured burger, the cost of lab-grown meat is dropping rapidly. Three years ago it dropped to US$11 from US$17/kg. Industry insiders predict prices will drop to US$1/kg by 2020. It will be difficult for cattlemen to compete with labs at those prices.  


Why is this emerging technology necessary?

According to the World Resources Institute, if 30 per cent of the beef in every American burger were replaced by mushrooms, a reduction in greenhouse emissions could be achieved equaling 2.3 million vehicles removed from roads. The production of lab-grown meat will yield a significant reduction in livestock, which could potentially reduce contributions to climate change.

The world’s population is set to increase, which means more meat-eaters. “The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change — especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat,” writes Bill Gates. This makes sense economically. As more nations become wealthier, the growing middle class will have more resources to purchase more meat-based solutions.

There is also water to consider. The wasting of water (and water shortages) is a major issue around the world, but an even larger issue in the production of meat. According to Peta, to produce about a half a kilo of meat requires more than 9085 litres, compared to maybe just 95 litres of water for lab-grown meat operations. According to the research, environmentally conscious consumers could save more water by simply not eating meat rather than not showering for six months. Lab-grown meat could significantly reduce water stress.


Pushback against the technology

After much publicity, lab-grown meat companies have missed their end-of-2018 target for imitation meat product launches to the public, much to the delight of the meat industry. The meat industry pushed back on these products before they even hit the market.

The US Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition with the USDA to block foods from being called ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ unless they are made from slaughtered animals. In similar fashion, the Chief executive of the Cattle Council of Australia (CCA), Margo Andrae, called for reforms to clarify the legal definition of ‘meat’ to avoid confusion in the market between livestock and laboratory-based producers.

The definition of meat is outlined by Food Standards Australia New Zealand as coming from “the whole or part of the carcass” and does originate from “foetuses or parts of the foetuses”. Lab-grown protein, or ‘clean meat’, is typically produced from the blood of unborn calves, extracted before their birth to form Foetal Bovine Serum. This raises questions surrounding the marketing language that can be used for these products in the marketplace, prompting Andrae to speak out on the issue. The dairy industry experienced similar problems regarding the term ‘milk’. Farmers lobbied for bans on soy and almond dairy drinks being sold as ‘milk’ due to the potential confusion consumers face. As clean meat approaches commercialisation as an alternative to traditional meat products, suitable frameworks and regulations need to be adapted to protect consumers and businesses.

If the driving force behind this technology is to engineer a more sustainable cow-free alternative, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in February 2019, shows troubling results. The research indicates that cultured lab meat may make climate change worse.

“The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes,” researcher John Lynch told the BBC. “If the lab-grown meat is quite energy intensive to produce, then they could end up being worse for the climate than cows are.”

The researchers from the Oxford Martin School compared the potential impact on the global temperature over the next 1,000 years of three cattle farming methods and four potential methods for growing meat in the lab.  Their comparison revealed that yes, lab-grown meat could be better for the environment — but it won’t be better by default. The benefits of lab-grown meat will depend on scientists’ ability to produce it sustainably, and right now, it’s not certain if that’s even possible.


Meat-free alternatives

Lab-grown meat is far behind the meat-free burger trend that has been dominated by companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These meat-free alternatives are no run-of-the-mill veggie patties but mimic the texture and taste of animal meats, using plant-based ingredients.

The Impossible Burger, the leader in the global meat-free burger industry, is now in over 5000 restaurants worldwide. Their team of 100 scientists and engineers have now built a second version of their bestselling burger that won the “Best of the Best” and “Best of Show” awards at the 2019 International Consumer Electronics Show. Impossible Foods’ secret sauce is something called Heme, a protein found in both plants and animals, that they claim is what makes meat taste like meat. Really great plant-based burgers are here, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. In fact, both the Impossible Burger and the burger from Beyond Meat are somewhat unhealthy.

Air New Zealand is now serving the Impossible Burger on flights between Auckland and Los Angeles, and reviews by Triple J and AFR have rated it as the “best fake meat in the world”.


The quest for the perfect cow-free burger is nearly within our grasp. Whether you choose to replace your meats with convincing plant-based imitations or lab-grown meat options, these food technologies may play a huge part of your diet in the coming decades.


This story is featured in the 5 April 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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