July 1, 2016
There are approximately 30.3 million beef cows on cattle ranges across the United States (statistics gathered Jan 1, 2015). This cattle population supports an entire industry of food production, restaurants, supermarkets, and butcher shops. Furthermore, over two thirds of our farmland is used to grow crops to feed these cows along with chicken, pigs, and other livestock.
This entire infrastructure of cattle, beef, and farms is about to be disrupted by a laboratory in the Netherlands.
Professor Mark Post, his team at Maastricht University, and his biotech startup, Mosa Meat, is in the process of refining cultured beef, a meat product grown in a laboratory from the cells of a living cow. The cultured beef looks, cooks, and tastes like real beef, but the entire process is done without sacrificing the life of a cow.
The Economic Impact of Cultured Beef
While the realities of factory farming are ghastly, the primary motivation to develop cultured beef was not a moral one. Post primarily cites environmental benefits. He believes that our current meat industry is unsustainable and requires a new approach to limit its effect on our environment.
- Greenhouse Gasses: Surprisingly, cattle produce more greenhouse gases in our environment than transportation. As the cows eat, they produce far more methane than a human, and with such a large population, their belching actually creates a significant impact. In total, cattle produces 18% of greenhouse gasses globally. Cultured beef by comparison produces 98% less greenhouse gas.
- Reduced Energy Consumption: The process of creating cultured beef is far more efficient than raising, slaughtering, and processing traditional beef products. Cultured meat could reduce overall energy use by 45% and water use by 96%.
- Less Land Use: Drive through almost anywhere in Illinois, outside of Chicago, and you will see corn and soy fields without end. As stated earlier, over two thirds of that farmland is used to produce food for livestock. Cultured beef only requires a laboratory. That land can be repurposed to grow other crops that are harvested specifically for our table.
How to Grow Your Own Beef
In 2013, Mosa Meat unveiled an early version of cultured beef during a conference in London and invited food critics to taste test the product. The results were encouraging, but the beef did not receive rave reviews. Food writer, Josh Schonwald said that, “the general bite feels like hamburger.” However, nutrition researcher Hanni Rützler was keenly aware of the lack of fat. “There is quite some intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy.”
Post and his team took the feedback into account. Though fat has a bad reputation in food, it is the source of a lot of flavor. Without it, the meat just wouldn’t taste right. Post and his team had to go back, redesign their process, and culture fat as well as muscle when producing their beef.
The process goes as such:
- A small sample of muscle fibers and cells are extracted from a living cow.
- The cells are then encouraged to divide and multiply in the laboratory.
- As these cells multiply over and over again, the cells form myotubes. Those myotubes arrange in rings of muscle.
- Those muscles will continue to multiply, contract, and grow bulk like any other living muscle tissue.
- Eventually, the sample grow large enough to be ground up into hamburger meat.
- Cultured fat is then mixed in to create the final beef product.
- Cultured beef is then grilled, fried, or roasted like any other beef product into a meal we can enjoy.
Making Cultured Beef Competitive
Creating a new food product is one thing. The next challenge is making the product competitive in a longstanding market. For example, organic food has struggled to completely replace their competitors, because many consumers are unwilling to pay the premium. If cultured beef cannot reach a comparable price with farm-raised beef, it will remain a novelty and fail to achieve the revolution that Post envisions.
When cultured beef was unveiled in 2013, it had a total cost of $300,000 per pound. That’s a bad start, but future projections are far better. All forms of technology become less expensive as they mature, and cultured beef is no different. Post estimate’s early retail price to be approximately $29.50 per pound once it is actually released to the market.
According to beefusa.org, the current aggregate market price of beef is $6.29 per pound. Cultured beef is still a ways away from overtaking regular beef, but it won’t be completely outside the buying power of the average American.
Upon initial release, Post intends to target high-end restaurants and specialty stores. These businesses serve a clientele far more likely to pay the premium for such an exotic dish. With that market foothold, Post can continue research and ramp up production. He is confident that with time the price can drop as far as $3.60 per pound.
Reach that price point, and suddenly there’s no reason to ever eat a burger derived from a live cow again. Less land, less energy, less greenhouse gases, less ethical complications, less water, and soon less money—Post believes this could be the biggest food revolution since agriculture, and he may be right.
Cultured beef is set to seek approval from the FDA in 2018, and by 2020 could be in supermarkets.
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