When scientists unveiled the first lab-grown burger in 2013, they had a strong argument that it represented the future of meat. Test-tube protein could revolutionize our current agricultural system—and address some of environmental and ethical problems with the world's massive amount of meat consumption. But critics also had a very strong argument as to why this might not be a panacea: that single patty cost a whopping $325,000 to produce.
But “schmeat” scientists have not given up on bringing their goods to the masses. In fact, professor Mark Post told ABC Australia he estimates he will soon be able to cut costs down to just about $11 per burger.
Why was the piece of beef so expensive to start with? For one, it took a lot of the scientists’ time to figure out how to make. Vice Munchies explains the complicated process behind how it was eventually done:
The 2013 burger was made by taking muscle cells from a cow, using it to cultivate stem cells, and then fusing them with collagen. Then, electricity was used to stimulate the subsequent ‘muscle’ strands, causing them to flex in a way that would render them meatier and more similar to conventional beef. Sounds like a breeze, right? Then consider that 20,000 of these individual strands would need to be cultivated, processed, and seasoned in order to create a single burger.
The tube-meat enthusiasts are not dissuaded by the high price tag. “Consider it like the very first computer,” Isha Datar, director of a nonprofit dedicated to the development of lab-grown meat alternatives, told Grist. “It was very exclusive and impractical in every sense – it was not something you’ll ever see in a store.” But now—to continue the computer metaphor—computers of all shapes and sizes are completely run-of-the-mill. We even have computers that fit in our pockets.
“I do think that in 20, 30 years from now we will have a viable industry producing alternative beef,” Post said.
Cost aside, there is another factor to consider: whether schmeat actually tastes good. Because only three people got to sample the first one, most of us can’t know for sure—at least not for awhile. But, going off the taste-testers comments, it sounds like there is still some work to be done. “The testers reported that the burger tasted almost like a real one, but not as juicy and ‘surprisingly crunchy,’” reports MIT Technology Review. And “crunchy” is...not exactly a desirable quality in meat.
As Datar explained to Grist, flavor comes down to being able to culture other cell types, like fat and blood—not just muscle. Hopefully, figuring out how to produce those cells won’t cost too much.