This interview was originally broadcast on May 18, 2011.
Imagine picking up a nice juicy burger and taking a bite, only to find out that the meaty burger you're biting into didn't come from an animal — it was grown in a lab.
Sound far-fetched? The reality of test-tube burgers in supermarkets may be close to becoming a reality. Scientists at laboratories around the world are currently working to make meat in labs that will eventually look and taste like the real thing, without any animal parts.
Science writer Michael Specter recently traveled to laboratories in the Netherlands and North Carolina to examine the progress scientists have made in developing in vitro meat. He writes about his trip, and the arguments in favor of lab-made steaks, in the May 23 issue of The New Yorker.
Motivation For Lab Meat
Specter explains that part of the motivation for growing meat in laboratories is animal welfare: billions of cows, chickens and pigs would no longer spend their lives force-fed grain and antibiotics or cooped up in factory farms.
"There is something inherently creepy about [growing meat in labs]," Specter tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat. ... They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people."
Another motivation, Specter says, is the positive environmental impact test-tube meat could have on the planet. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, global livestock is responsible for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. And as the population grows, he says, more resources will be needed to sustain the agricultural industry.
"We have 7 billion people on the planet, and there will be 9 billion [people] by 2050," he says. "Those people need food. They need protein — and they tend to eat better as they get wealthier. And better, unfortunately, means eating more like Americans — a lot of meat. And a lot of meat means a lot of water, a lot of grain, a lot of grass. And we don't have that much room for any of it."
How It Works
Currently tissue scientists are taking stem cells from pigs and putting them in nutrient broth-filled petri dishes, where they rapidly grow. The biggest slab of meat grown so far is about the size of a contact lens and contains millions of cells. The next step, Specter says, is trying to take these cells and turn them into muscle tissue, using biodegradable scaffolding platforms.
"The idea is you grow these cells into muscle tissue, and you eventually have the same sort of meat that you would take from the flesh of an animal," he says.
But muscle cells or tissue cannot just be placed on a platform and left alone. Muscles require stimulation and exercise or they will atrophy and die. Scientists currently use electrical impulses to stimulate the muscle cells grown in the laboratory, but haven't yet figured out how to do it on a mass-factory scale.
"If you're growing it in a factory, [there's a mass] quantity of meat," Specter says. "It's difficult to see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab and it works well, they are looking at other ways of doing it."
In addition to the technical complexities of making test-tube meat, there's also the issue of taste. Specter says scientists assured him that there will be no taste differential between animal meat and test-tube meat.
"I talked to one scientist and I mentioned this as 'synthetic meat,' and she got annoyed," he says. "She said, 'This isn't synthetic. It's organic. It's meat. It's two meat cells growing to become more meat cells.' And depending on what your definition of any sort of life is, this is as fundamental as any animal is."