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Know the West

Where's the beef?


Ah, the future. It's so fun to imagine. In 10 years, we could all be driving electric cars. We won't download or search anymore; we'll just tell our "wired" house what we want, and those things will appear on various devices, or on our doorsteps. And, if PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has his way, we might get our hamburgers from a laboratory, instead of a cow.

In August, Thiel donated $350,000 from his philanthropic foundation to a new venture called Modern Meadow. The company plans to use a type of three-dimensional printing used in creating tissues and organs to build edible animal protein. The technology is an offspring of what is used in a health field called regenerative medicine, which "prints" new human organs to replace non-working ones.

If doctors can engineer living, working human organs, then meat production should be a cinch. That's essentially what one of the company's co-founders, Gabor Forgacs, told an audience at a New America Foundation event on feeding the world in the future. Three years ago, Forgacs said, he was in the midst of a standard tissue engineering endeavor. And then:

"One day the eureka moment came. And we said, why don't we try to build food? After all, meat is made of mammalian cells and we know how to package them, how to deposit them, how to make them interact in the right way to get functional tissues. And if you can do that at the level of regenerative medicine needs, well, why wouldn't you be able to do that at the level of agriculture?"


Cow-calf producers across the West need not fear for their livelihoods just yet. The company's first project is to create "a strip of edible porcine tissue" -- pork, that is.

Modern Meadows' bigger picture goal, other than doing something really, really weird but also strangely cool, is to produce meat at a lower environmental cost. Meat, tasty as it may be, is not the most efficient source of calories. In an increasingly populated world, this may not work in its favor, noted Gabor Forgacs, as he pointed out how many kilograms of raw feed it takes to produce one kilogram of chicken (2), pork (4), or beef (8). As Modern Meadows states in its application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant:

"Present farm and industrial meat production methods and technologies have a number of associated problems including health risks (infectious animal diseases, nutrition-related diseases), resource intensity (land, water, energy), damage to environment (green house gas emission, erosion, biodiversity loss) and ethical challenges (animal welfare)."

The other Modern Meadow co-founder, Andras Forgacs (Gabor's father) put it more bluntly, telling the news site CNET that: “if you look at the resource intensity of everything that goes into a hamburger, it is an environmental train wreck.”

So, here's the big question: how does it taste?

Right now, the answer is, not bad, but not great either, said Gabor Forgacs, who has eaten his own homegrown lab meat -- and lived to tell the tale.

"(It's) neutral tasting," he says. "Not bad but not like your juicy hamburger."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.