Imagine scientists wearing surgical masks in a brightly lit laboratory growing beef in Petri dishes using electric shocks and stem cells. Does it seem like a scene out of a science fiction movie? I thought so too when I first heard about this story.
However, the test tube burger is not science fiction. It’s just science.
Seen as a promising solution to global hunger crises, the concept of test tube burger meat became widely known in 2013 when humans took a bite from a test tube burger for the first time.
The project, backed by Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) co-founder Sergey Brin, successfully created a burger’s worth of meat in 2013. However, that meat was rather expensive: It cost $325,000 for a single burger.
While this project clearly isn’t going to solve any global hunger shortages any time soon, it’s important to keep in mind that the price of technology can drop dramatically over time. We saw just how dramatically the price of the test tube burger technology could drop when we recently learned that the cost to produce the same amount of burger meat has already dropped to just over $11.
Making the test tube burger requires cow cells, stem cells and some electricity. Some 20,000 individual strands later and you’ve got yourself a burger’s worth of “meat.”
It still seemed like a pipe dream when I first heard about the test tube burger in 2013. It was then that a Dutch professor named Mark Post announced he had succeeded in making a burger. And it wasn’t at all surprising to learn that his main backer is famed pipe dream investor Sergey Brin, the man behind Google Glass, self-driving cars and a whole host of other things we haven’t even heard about yet.
Two years later, the test tube burger is a lot closer to reality than I would have expected in such a short period of time. I consider a decline in price from $325,000 to $11.36 in less than two years to be pretty incredible.
Obviously price isn’t the only factor that will affect the viability of test tube food.
Ethical questions – particularly over the use of stem cells – remain a huge concern for a percentage of the population. Though I think it is the “ick” factor that will be the hardest to get over. I have to imagine that, for some people, eating a burger or chicken nugget made synthetically and by scientists rather than farmers will never be an appealing choice.
Then again, we’ve gotten so removed from our sources of food that we didn’t even notice the “pink slime,” pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other substances creeping into the food supply that we’ve learned about in the past several years. Plus, raising animals for consumption – particularly cows – is incredibly resource intensive.
Perhaps low-cost, pure and synthetic meats are the perfect solution to humankind’s food shortages after all.
Laboratory meats and other synthetic foods are developing quickly and seem inevitable at this point. How society will adopt these new products remains to be seen, but it seems clear to me that, at this point, I don’t think anything can stop the test tube burger from someday making it to a grocery store near you.
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