The world’s first lab-grown meatball has been given a sizzling reception after being cooked up online. Created by Memphis Meats, a new San Francisco-based startup, the meatball is a bite-sized statement of intent from a company that plans to take “cultured meat” global, and reckons that within two decades most of the meat we eat will be produced in laboratories, rather than raised in a field.
Animals will certainly breathe a sigh of relief if the Memphis Meats project comes to fruition – as will a world already counting the carbon cost of a runaway meat addiction. Global demand for meat is expected to roughly double in the next 40 years as populations increase and emerging powerhouses such as India and Brazil rush to cater for the aspirations of their burgeoning middle classes.
“The meat industry knows their products aren’t sustainable,” said Memphis Meats chief executive Uma Valeti, who points out that raising livestock to produce a meatball of equivalent size would generate 90 per cent more greenhouse gases. “We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured.”
With 70 per cent of global farming capacity currently given over to raising livestock for meat, rather than food for direct human consumption, the rise of lab-grown meat is being watched by environmentalists and policymakers alike – as well as entrepreneurs keen to discover the next big thing. Memphis Meats is looking for investment via a new biotech accelerator, Indie Bio, that is seeking to speed up innovations in biotech to promote cleaner, greener solutions to the meat crisis.
Valeti, who is also a cardiologist at the University of Minnesota, said: “This is absolutely the future of meat. We plan to do to the meat industry what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable.”
The work on creating lab-grown meat has come on apace in recent years. In 2012, scientists at Maastricht University announced they had created the world’s first lab-grown burger – at a cost of more than £200,000. It was made of wafer-thin sheets of cow muscle and fatty tissue that had been grown from stem cells.
The prohibitive cost made it the world’s most expensive fast food when it was finally cooked and eaten in 2013, but since then the lead scientist on the project, Mark Post, says he has successfully lowered the cost of his cow-free burgers down to £7.50 per patty. Memphis Meats, meanwhile, say it currently costs about £12,000 to produce 450 g of meat. The costs will inevitably drop in coming years as the technology becomes cheaper and more money is ploughed into the industry. It can’t come soon enough for the animals, our health and our planet.