The burgeoning science of fake meat, both in vitro and sophisticated plant-based stuff, has been around for almost a decade, but now tech billionaires are officially competing to see who can bring the stuff to market first. No less a tech visionary than Bill Gates is investing in the production of plant-based faux chicken products, and Silicon Valley overlord Sergey Brin has been quietly bankrolling a rather remarkable experiment in growing beef in a laboratory. On Monday, Dutch researchers unveiled the results of the Brin-funded experiment: a two-years-in-development hamburger made from beef stem cells. A taste test revealed the "beef" was "dry and lacking in flavor" (a description that could apply to nearly any fast-food burger patty on the market), but the goal isn't necessarily to make a delicious burger. The goal is to make a burger that will be able to keep up with the world's fast-growing demand for meat — a demand that could soon outstrip supply, in which case we'd have — yes — a burger apocalypse.
Here's why: The world's population is likely heading to 9 billion by 2050, and as more and more people get a taste for meat in their diets, global meat consumption is expected to double in the next 40 years. Traditional meat production is wildly unsustainable — seven pounds of feed are required for every pound of beef produced, and beef production generates 24 times more greenhouse gases than vegetables or rice. In fact, overall livestock production is responsible for one-fifth of all greenhouse-gas production.
But what meat substitute — or avoidance strategy — will ultimately be the one to save the world? Here are the leading contenders and their various benefits and drawbacks:
Option 1: Stem-Cell Burgers
The in vitro burger released this week is the first of its kind: Scientists took stem cells from slaughterhouse scraps and, according to the Times, "The cells were multiplied in a nutrient solution and put into small petri dishes, where they became muscle cells and formed tiny strips of muscle fiber. About 20,000 strips were used to make the five-ounce burger, which contained breadcrumbs, salt, and some natural colorings as well." Yum?
Pros: It's beefish. If researchers can improve the flavor, and figure out a way to add fat to the lab-grown meat, this could one day be indistinguishable from actual, land-grown beef. A recent Oxford University study suggests that laboratory-produced meat would use a fraction of the land and water that raising animals does, produce a fraction of the emissions, and use about half as much energy as traditional beef production.
Cons: We're still at least a decade away from anything resembling an in vitro steak with marbling and blood vessels. And at roughly $325,000 to produce the burger, this technology is approximately 12,500 times more expensive than Minetta Tavern's Black Label burger.
Option 2: Eating Very Alternative Proteins, Like Bugs
Angelina Jolie is doing it, and more people in the developed world are starting to catch on to what the poorest people on the planet have always known: Bugs and worms are good for you, and they're everywhere.
Pros: Insects are packed with protein, fiber, and nutrients like iron, magnesium, and zinc, and they're already dinner for about 2 billion people worldwide. Crickets allegedly taste like popcorn. Also, bugs reproduce quickly, are great for the environment, and feed on human and food waste.
Option 3: People Set Aside Time to Go Meat-Free
Increasingly, people are taking part in environmental vegetarianism like Meatless Monday or going "Vegan Before Six." The idea is that these people can still enjoy meat most of the time, but by actively avoiding it at certain times, they hope they can help diminish our reliance on livestock, for both environmental and health reasons.
Pros: Practitioners can still eat more or less what they want — meaning there's no reason to say good-bye to rib eyes, as long as you eat them in a responsible fashion.
Cons: This will probably never catch on in any large-scale way — and any mandates would only be met with backlash since people, Americans especially, aren't too keen on being told what not to eat or drink.
Option 4: Eating More Plant-Based Ingredients
The existing bean-, tempeh-, and soy-based sausage, nugget, and burger simulacra on the market have given vegans and vegetarians something to eat at barbecues for the last two decades. And research shows that the meat-substitute market hit $550 million in 2012, an 8 percent rise over 2010.
Pros: They're cheap, plant-based, and readily available.
Cons: Texture and flavor. Veggie burgers are really geared toward vegetarians in the Western world who miss having a burger, but meat-eaters have been reluctant to embrace them as alternatives.
Option 5: Eating Plant-Based Faux Meat
Billed as the most pragmatic option for feeding the developing world, products like Beyond Meat's chicken substitute, through new manufacturing techniques, feel and taste much more like sinewy chicken breast than earlier, soy-based nuggets and patties. Bill Gates tried it and couldn't tell it apart from real chicken. Even Mark Bittman approves.
Pros:The stuff is already on the market and gaining steam, and because it comes from plants it won't be so pricey and complicated to scale up.
Cons: Good luck getting anything that resembles steak this way, and even an influential supporter like Gates has implied that First World omnivores probably aren't going to widely embrace this stuff
A lab-grown burger gets a taste test [NYT]
Scientists to cook the world's first in-vitro beef burger [Reuters]
Chart: When Will We Eat Hamburgers Grown in Test Tubes? [Atlantic]
Earlier: Bill Gates Wants You to Reconsider Your Stance on Fake Meat
8 Reasons Some People Think Bugs Are the Food of the Future