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.
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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.
"For people who care about animals this would be the best innovation in the history of the world," said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of policy for PETA.
In-vitro meat might not sound so appetizing now, but as people realize how the meat industry violates their fundamental ethics, he said, they'll be willing to accept the cruelty-free, lab-grown option.
"Hopefully we'll come up with a more appealing way to refer to it than in vitro meat," he said. But "once there is a marketing campaign ... it's going to be a no-brainer for people."
Still, public health experts say it may not necessarily be better for human health.
"From a health standpoint, moving to less meat is the way to go. Just simulating more meat from a health standpoint doesn't make sense," said Dr. Walter Willett, the chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The regular consumption of red meat can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer and other medical conditions, he said, adding that it's possible that synthetic meat would have the same qualities as naturally-grown meat. A better solution might be to move toward alternative sources of protein, such as those from nuts, beans and fish, he said.
But Mironov insists that his food of the future has the potential to one-up even those natural sources of protein.
"You can enhance your brain power, you can enhance your immune system, you can reduce your body weight," he said.
The key obstacle for scientists interested in lab-grown meat is money -- in the U.S., the government and private groups don't want to fund the necessary research -- but the tide is beginning to shift in their favor, he said.
As people recognize the ecological urgency -- and the potential for job creation in a new era of manufacturing that combines technology and bioenginerering -- Mironov said possible funders are starting to get interested.
"Before I didn't get any telephone calls from venture capitalists," he said. "Now I get calls."
Mironov said the head of a global company that controls 25 percent of the world's beef has asked to meet with him.
While the costs of creating cultured meat are high today -- in the tens of thousands and more per burger -- he said that as with any new technology, the costs will come down as it develops and is more widely used.
Initially, Mironov said, he would target celebrities with his super food. As the price comes down, he could start to market to a wider audience. Eventually, people might even have coffee-maker-sized devices in their homes that would let them custom-create meat to their tastes and nutritional needs.
But, he emphasized, that it all depends on money. Without it, the goal might never be realized. With the right funding, facilities and people, he said it could happen "very fast."
"I think the time is coming," he said. "I couldn't say this year or next year, but definitely in my lifetime something will happen."