Next time you fire up the grill for a backyard barbecue, think about this: At some point in the future, those steaks sizzling over the flames might not come from livestock, but a lab.
For some scientists, so-called "test-tube" meat has been the dream of decades. And fueled by concerns about the consequences of meat consumption for our health, the environment and animal welfare, the movement is gaining momentum.
At universities in the U.S. and Europe, researchers are working to develop lab-grown meat that looks and tastes like the real deal. And one leading bioengineer said he's even drawing up a business plan for a start-up that would bring synthetic meat to market.
"I think the future of human food, is food becomes not just a way to survive, but also a way to become better," said Dr. Vladimir Mironov, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Most people try to imitate natural meat – it must be the same taste, texture, structure. What I want to say is that we can create better than nature -- not just food, but a 'nutraceutical.'"
For the past decade, Mironov has been working to develop lab-grown meat from stem cells bathed in a nutrient-rich bioreactor mixture. With the help of Nicholas Genovese, a research associate funded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), he's experimented with ways to engineer nutrition and taste into cultured meat. Now, he's working up plans to turn his research into a diner's reality.
Do you like your steak extra fatty or wish that it could boost your brain power? Mironov said that with a little bit of bioengineering those benefits can be baked in to a final product.
To make cultured, or in vitro, meat, scientists take the cells from an animal and then let them grow in a plant-based mixture of nutrients. As the cells develop, they attach to a natural scaffold (or biodegradable foundation) to create the muscle tissue that comprises meat -- all without the raising and slaughtering of animals.
Meat Production Produces 20 Percent of Humanity's Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The phrase "lab-grown meat" has become shorthand for this kind of research -- a term that does little to whet the public's appetite. But Genovese said that once it graduates to a formal production facility (he suggests the term "carnery"), it might overcome the "yuck factor" people associate with food born in a petri pish.
"Once the process is optimized and it's FDA-regulated and it's safe and it's produced in a suitable manner, then it's going to be transfered to a production facility, just like [the ones] you have for yogurt, dairy and wine," he said.
While research in this area isn't new, scientists say global trends are making the work more relevant than ever.
"Everybody loves meat and meat consumption is going to double in the next 40 years," said Dr. Mark Post, the head of the physiology department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who has been researching the subject for years. "In my mind, meat consumption is here to stay, and if you want to do that at a higher efficiency than what is currently done by cows and pigs, you have to explore the possibility of doing that in the lab."
Morris Benjaminson, a scientist at Touro College who was able to grow fish filets in the lab about a decade ago, said that though research funding for lab-grown meat is still lagging, the recognition is spreading that meat consumption has consequences.
"It's become more evident that there's going to be no shortage of human beings on the planet and a possible shortage of food to feed them with," he said. "I think there's an awareness of the possibility that we're not living in paradise anymore."
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock industry generates nearly 20 percent of the world population's greenhouse gas emissions. Experts also say that cattle consume about 80 percent of the planet's farmland and about 10 percent of its fresh water.