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Test-tube burger, anyone?

Stephen Beard / aiAugust 2, 2013

A revolutionary new beef burger may be about to convert vegetarians into meat-eaters. The meat was grown in a lab in the Netherlands. But it's no substitute, like soy - it is the real thing.

Image: dreamer12 - Fotolia.com

Keeping pigs and rearing cattle may have made sense in the past, but making meat by traditional means just doesn't cut it anymore.

That's the view of Dutch scientist Mark Post of Utrecht University.

Meat production uses vast amounts of land, water, fossil fuels and other resources. And with global meat consumption expected to double within the next 40 years, that's a problem.

"With the current meat production method that's practically impossible," says Post. "Cows and pigs are very inefficient animals. For every 15 grams of meat you need to feed them with 100 grams of vegetable proteins, so it's a very, very low efficiency rate."

Mark Post (Photos: Birgit Görtz/DW)
Post hopes his meat will soon compete with the real stuffImage: DW

But Post says he has found a way to keep meat-lovers dripping in gravy. At his laboratory at Maastricht University, the scientist has created what is thought to be the world's first test-tube burger: just under 150 grams of pink "material" grown in an incubator from stem cells taken from a cow's neck.

And the world's first test tube burger made with artificial meat is about to be thrown on the grill - and tasted - in London.

Future benefits

"It's exactly the same as meat," insists Post. "It's coming from the same cells - they have produced the same proteins. It tastes like meat. The only difference is that it's not grown within the animal, but outside."

Post says that stem cells taken from just one animal could - in theory - be used to make a million times more meat than could be butchered from a single beef carcass.

It's a technology that could hugely reduce the amount of land, energy and water required by traditional livestock farming.

That's not to mention the problem of animal flatulence, which contributes to global warming.

The in vitro meat may also take the wind out animal welfare protesters, who might have less of an issue with people eating meat if fewer living animals are reared exclusively for slaughter. Some vegetarians say they would eat the new meat for the same reason.

The 250,000 euro burger

But as the Maastricht researcher acknowledges, these are still early days for test tube meat.

"There's simply the issue of making enough of it at a price point where it's marketable," says Neil Stephens, a social scientist at Cardiff University.

It cost around 250,000 euros ($300,000) to create one five-ounce burger in a test tube.

Stephens says large-scale, low-cost manufacturing could be a long way off.

"It may never be possible to produce the quantities that are envisaged," says Stephens. "To do that on a large scale is a long way from where we are today."

A thick strip steak being grilled outdoors
Large-scale, low cost manufacturing of the in vitro meat could be a long way offImage: Fotolia/stockcreations

And there's another major hurdle to clear. No one knows whether customers will actually want to consume meat reared in a laboratory. Test tube meat could face stiff consumer resistance.

Post concedes he faces an uphill battle, including a number of technical and financial obstacles.

But he's confident he can overcome them.

"With the current technology it takes a long time and it's expensive. However we have very good reasons to assume that with scaling up and improving the technology and automating the technology, we can get it down to a very, very reasonable price level," says Post.

'Tastes and looks exactly the same'

He believes that no matter how people react in Britain when the first test-tube burger is eaten in London, most people around the world will respond favorably.

"For instance, here in the Netherlands, a majority of the people favor having an alternative which is exactly the same, tastes the same, looks the same and is the same price or even cheaper. They will be willing to try it and eat it. So I don't find resistance to be too problematic, to be honest."

In the end, it all depends on the taste. If the punters give Post's beef the thumbs down, a revolution in food manufacturing could be done before it's begun.