Is the meat in your burger from a Lab?

You may remember back in 2001 when the book Fast Food Nation was released and America was suddenly awoken by the horrific truth that their beef contained bacteria from fecal contamination that occurred during sloppy kill floor practices. Since then, food production has modified these procedures, cleaning up the process considerably.

But now we have different problems with the beef industry that affects our outside environment instead of our insides. Global climate change is imminent due to the snowballing effect of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, as CO2 is released into the atmosphere, the Earth becomes hotter, melting the polar ice caps, releasing more CO2, further raising the overall temperature of the earth. It’s been reported that even if we were to stop all CO2 production right now, this runaway effect would continue to steadily heat the world for another 20 years.

The problem is, we’re so dependent on all these processes that release CO2 it seems overwhelming. Agribusiness has a huge impact on the environment from deforestation to water pollution. You may not have guessed that it’s also a major contributor to CO2 emissions. A 2006 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that “Globally [the livestock sector] is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.” According to a PNAS study, removing all US livestock would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6%. While that may not seem like a lot compared whopping 37% that comes from electricity production, it’s certainly a small step towards the goal of ending CO2 production entirely.

Until recently, removing agricultural animals basically meant going vegan. You may have heard of the success of the impossible burger which mimics the flavor of ground beef by using only plant-based products, but that still only serves as a substitute for the real thing: meat. Back in 2011, it cost $325,000 to grow one hamburger in a petri dish. Now, the vegan food company Just Inc. in San Francisco is expected to have a clean meat product available for consumers by the end of this year. Mosa, the Dutch lab that created that first $325,000 burger, is set to start selling their patties to high-end restaurants by 2021 for just $11 each. It seems only a matter of time before the process is efficient enough for your favorite fast food joint.

Of course, the issue arises over whether consumers would be willing to eat meat grown in a petri dish, or even if it should be considered meat at all. The answer to that question is, yes. You may remember back in 2014 when Taco Bell was under fire for selling beef that was only 30% beef.  While this was a gross exaggeration anyway, clean meat is nothing like that, nor is it like the impossible burger. Scientists create clean meat by cultivating animal cells and tricking them into reproducing using plant matter as fuel.

The result is meat just as it would be if it was grown on the animal itself just without the rest of the animal. Think of how a baby cow is formed in its mother. The mother’s body breaks down her food and transfers nutrients to the embryo which grows from a single sell. Now imagine that instead of growing a whole cow the mother just grows the part you want to eat. Now imagine that happening outside of the cow entirely. It’s the same cellular process, it just gets straight to the point instead of breeding and raising something just to slaughter it.

Whether it sits well with you or not, lab-grown meat is on the rise. The streamline production of biological matter means that not only is the meat free of feces, it’s also free of disease. Scientists can culture cells directly from the best candidate for the meat product, essentially cutting out the process of breeding and raising the right animals to make the meat. Lab-grown leather will be hitting the market soon. There’s even acellular agriculturalist at the New Harvest Research Institute whose goal is to create a quintessential, marbled T-bone with all of its complex fibers—without a cow being bred or butchered.