Scientists looking to reduce the environmental impact that comes from raising animals for slaughter aim to produce a test-tube hamburger by the end of this year.
Production of synthetic meat could reduce the environmental footprint of meat production by up to 60 percent, Mark Post, professor of biomedical engineering and lead researcher for the project said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver on Sunday.
We would gain a tremendous amount in terms of resources, he said.
Food demand is expected to double within the next 50 years due to growing population size. The increased need for land coupled with climate change will make food production more difficult and unsustainable, Post said. Lab-grown meat would help ease the stress and make meat production more efficient, he continued.
Animals need to be fed 6 ounces of food to produce 1 ounce of meat, according to Post. That works out to an efficiency of only 15 percent. He said synthetic meat could be produced at 50 percent efficiency.
Post's team has already succeeded in growing a small piece of muscle, a half-inch long by a quarter-inch wide piece of synthetic meat. Researchers will produce more of these strips and mix them with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a burger.
In the beginning it will taste bland, Post told BBC News. I think we will need to work on the flavor separately by trying to figure out which components of the meat actually produce the taste and analyze what the composition of the strip is and whether we can change that.
If that doesn't sound appealing, the price will definitely ruin your appetite. The test-tube hamburger will cost approximately $300,000 to produce.
Don't expect it to be at your local McDonalds anytime soon. Right now, the test-tube burger is more a proof of concept than anything else.
The reason we are doing this is not to show a viable product but to show that in reality we can do this, Post told BBC News. From then on, we need to spend a whole lot of work and money to make the process efficient and then cost effective.
Not everyone is in favor of this approach. David Steele, president of Earthsave Canada, a non-profit organization that promotes ethical food choices, told the BBC that he is concerned about high levels of antibiotics and antifungal chemicals that would need to be present in the synthetic meat to keep it from rotting.
While I do think that there are definite environmental and animal welfare advantages of this high-tech approach over factory farming, it is pretty clear to me that plant-based alternatives have substantial advantages over synthetic meat, he said.
Post said one of the biggest benefits of synthetic meat is that it will reduce the need for farmable land, and with the projected increase of population, less land needed for crops will allow for more land for people.
It will help reduce land pressures, he told BBC News. Anything that stops more wild land being converted to agricultural land is a good thing. We're already reaching a critical point in availability of arable land.
In order to create synthetic meat, researchers take muscle meat and culture it in vitro. From that point on, more animals are not needed - it can be produced much like yogurt. One animal could provide more than a billion pounds of in vitro meat and could feed world's population for at least several hundred years, according to VeganWorks, a website that advocates veganism.
PETA announced a $1 million prize for the first group to successfully produce synthetic meat that is commercially viable. The burger Mark Post is working on would not qualify yet, as it is not feasible to produce commercially yet.