The rise of real meat factories

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2011 11:17 am

I’ve been taking about ‘meat things’ for nearly 10 years, so I was really excited by the new Michael Specter piece in The New Yorker about artificially grown meat, Test-tube Burgers. You can’t read most of it online, so I want to copy this small section:

…One study, completed last year by researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam, reported that the production of cultured meat could consume roughly half the energy and occupy just two percent of the land now devoted to the world’s meat industry….

I say real factories because we are all aware I assume by this point of the nature of ‘factory farming’. But mass production of animal stock is an ad hoc kludge. Domesticated animals have been bred for meat production, but they remain organisms with all the range of activities and ends which the term ‘organism’ entails. Raising raw tissue in cultures may seem ‘yucky,’ a point Specter covers in assessing the reaction of some environmentalists and animal-rights activists who don’t seem as excited by the shift from conventional livestock raising to growing tissue as one would expect if they ran the numbers, but it is probably inevitable if it is feasible. The article makes the point that most of the focus on this area seems to be in the Netherlands, but thank god the Chinese are paying attention to this!

MORE ABOUT: Lab Meat, Meat Things
  • Chris T

    This is actually a very good idea, even if it would take some getting used to. It would allow land currently used to feed animals to be diverted to other uses, such as growing food for people.

    50 years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. -Winston Churchill

    He was a bit off, but the argument is still good.

  • John Emerson

    Last I heard the Netherlands still produced a substantial amount of meat and dairy, and as a result was overwhelmed in shit it had no idea what to do with. Shit is valuable for those growing crops, but the Netherlands doesn’t have enough cropland to the amount of shit its livestock produce.

  • John Moore

    Soylent Green my friends!!!!!

  • BrianDH
  • Razib Khan

    #4, peta gave some funding to this research. though some people high up in peta were really opposed.

  • DK

    My first instinctive reaction: don’t believe it. It would take a lot of solid data to convince me in the reality of “the production of cultured meat could consume roughly half the energy” thing. Not to mention cost. Why is cost not mentioned? Sure you can make meat today – but at what expense? Tissue culture is expensive. Very expensive. And there are many good reasons why it is so. Yeah, I know – improvements, progress, economy of scale, etc. Still hard to believe. E.g., there are no ways around requirement of absolute sterility. May sound minor but it is actually a major expense that does not scale very well.

  • Razib Khan

    #6, i think the lack of investment is a “signal” from the market, and would support your contention. but when it comes to innovation i’m not sure that the market is that great (i think the market is great to squeeze efficiencies and improvements out of innovations though).

  • Ken

    1) The yuck factor can be overcome. After all, when you think about where meat, eggs, milk, cheese, etc. come from, they’re all pretty yucky.

    2) Energy use would presumably be lower because you are growing less or no bone, hooves, skin, tripe, brain, and other less-desirable organs (though of course all can be eaten, see point 1). Also the culture is not wasting energy moving, chewing, digesting, breeding, and so on.

    3) Keeping the tissue cultures sterile is a problem, but perhaps it can be solved with massive doses of antibiotics. The advantage of this is it will not change the meat from what we get from factory-raised animals….

  • Clark

    So what does it taste like? It seems like the essential components for good meat are muscle and fat. I can see them culturing the muscle but can they do that for fat? And what a cow eats has a big effect on the flavor of the meat. I wonder how they do that here.

    My prediction is that unless it tastes good it’ll do not much better than the soy bean pseudo-meats.

  • phanmo

    I wonder if you could get around the need for absolute sterility by growing skin as well, completely enclosing the muscle. You’d still need to compensate for the lack of an immune system but you’d probably have less trouble than with naked muscle. As an added bonus it could be a source for leather and gelatin (most of which is produced from skin, rather than hooves). We might finally see armchair “moral” vegetarians being less hypocritical, i.e. condemning someone eating a steak while wearing leather shoes.

  • Gordon

    I recently read that subjecting these test-tube meats to electrical stimulation works in much the same way as exercise. Experiments are now being undertaken to test this. And as for the “yuk” factor, it wouldn’t’t bother me at all. At least we wouldn’t’t be killing (in the usual meaning of the word) this “meat”!

  • True Q

    It’s a wonderful idea. All ethical concerns about eating meat go away right with this kind of production. Unfortunately there will be a lot of resistance. Let’s hope that in this case Resistance is futile.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    I think meat factories will come first to places with high population densities and limited agricultural land, such as the East Asian countries. Also, specialty items such a crab meat and other kinds of seafood will be produced by meat factories before land animal meat. Meat factories will probably not be common here in the U.S. because land in the U.S. is still comparatively cheap and we have large ranches.

    Can fruits and vegetables be produced by this technology? If so, that’s another growth market since fruit and vegetable cultivation is labor intensive. E.g. illegal immigrant labor that will go away as Latin America develops and passes through the demographic transition (Mexico already has below replacement fertility).

  • ackbark

    I’ve been wondering, if you’re growing meat in a test tube, where does the nutrient for that come from? It takes a lot of land area to feed a cow, so what is the origin of this artificial nutrient?

    On the other hand this process would allow you to make all kinds of tweaks to it you never could in nature. You could perfectly balance the vitamins and proteins and add in other beneficial elements.

    You could make combinations that would otherwise be impossible, like crossing pork with an ostrich or whale shark.

    And you could make tissue of rare or endangered animals without ethical qualms.

    And you could expand tiny little tissues, like grasshopper chops, or a t-bone mouse steak, or a mosquito shoulder roast, to a size where you actually enjoy it.

  • Vogie

    I can see more of this line of thinking as our world gets smaller. I remember a “Bluff the Listener” from NPR’s Wait Wait about a cancelled casino thinking about turning itself into an inland Oyster/scallop/fish farm after BP decided to wax the Gulf of Mexico. Sure, it was fiction, but we’re getting to that type of thinking now. Things like Aquaculture, vertical farms and the like should be on their way not so far into the future.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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