Got Beef? These burgers are bringing it

There’s been a lot of talk lately about lab grown meats. According to many articles they are the future of the way we eat, once they drop a little in price (the first lab-grown burger patty costing $330,000 U.S in 2013). They require minimal use of animals and are much more sustainable. What also does this is the Impossible Burger – a vegan burger that almost perfectly mimics meat in taste, smell and even bloodiness. So much, in fact, that Google wanted to buy is for $300 million U.S. I think we’ve found our two candidates for this week’s weigh up – cultured meat vs. the Impossible Burger. Now let’s science!

Cultured Meat

burgersLet’s face it – animal agriculture is a problem, and its growing. Meat production has tripled in the last 40 years with no signs of slowing down – Americans are now estimated to eat three hamburgers a week. And it’s shocking that I wasn’t that shocked to hear that! I think we all know someone who does at least two Maccas runs a week. All meat production requires substantially more water, land, and grain to produce than plants, however the world’s 1.5 billion cows are the main culprits I’ll be targeting. Let me give you a few reasons why:

  1. It takes 6813 litres of water to make 450 grams of beef. That means it takes 1703 litres to make one quarter-pounder – or 21 baths.
  2. 30% of the Earth’s land area is used for livestock. Of this 30%, beef uses 60% of the land area. It is one of the main reasons why rainforests such as the Amazon are being cleared so quickly. cowpie
  3. Cows produce methane gas when they digest their food. Methane gas is so much worse than carbon dioxide because it traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere within a 5 year period, leading to more rapid climate change. In fact, all livestock put together produce more greenhouse gases than all of the forms of transport put together.
  4. Cow manure contains nitrous oxide, along with the fertiliser to produce their feed. This stuff is the top dog when it comes to pollution – it’s effects on global warming are not 3, not 30, but 300 times that of carbon dioxide. When this runs off into waterways algae starts to grow and sucks out the oxygen from underneath, leaving none for fish or other marine life.

Clearly, our methods for producing beef need to change, and cultured meats are one of the suggested alternatives. Basically, it’s making meat without the animal – sound freaky? You’d be correct, but it’s a method becoming more popular in other fields too such as medicine (ever heard of an ear being grown in a petri dish?). Stem cells, which are cells that can be made to take on the role of other cells like skin, organs, and muscle, are used to begin the process. They are taken from a live animal and put into a petri dish – a covered dish with a culture that can feed their growth. As we all know, muscles need exercise and fuel to grow, and so valcro is placed in the dish with the cells to provide resistance and stretch them out. Finally, 20,000 of these muscle strips are harvested to make a single 140-gram patty after around three weeks.

What are the advantages?

Well, this study by the Food Climate Research Network sums it up pretty nicely:

“In comparison to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat involves approximately 7-45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78-96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82-96% lower water use depending on the product compared. Despite high uncertainty, it is concluded that the overall environmental impacts of cultured meat production are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat.”

However, there are still many challenges that come with culturing that can affect the success of this alternative. For example, keeping the cells healthy and uncontaminated can be extremely difficult without the use of antibiotics (which are already a health problem in meat today) and other animal products such as fetal bovine serum (baby cow juice) are used in cultures to grow the cells – not particularly appealing. Despite this, the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger Mark Post suggests test tube meat could be healthier for us than beef as fat content could be controlled, growth hormones are not needed, and even non-heme iron (more about this below) and cholesterol varieties could be made. It seems at this point there is a lot of ums and ahhs about the possibilities, so let’s compare at our competitor; the Impossible Burger.

Impossible Burger

The name doesn’t lie folks – it’s vegan, made of ingredients like potato, coconut oil and wheat and tastes, smells and bleeds like meat. What gives it that meaty-ness is not these ingredients though, its HEME (pronounced hee-me). Heme is found in haemoglobin in blood and its job is to carry oxygen – it’s that very blood that gives meat its flavor and smell. Plants use their heme in a few different ways but the simplest answer is for transporting oxygen for different chemical reactions in the plant (check out this video for more information). The makers of the Impossible Burger produce their heme by taking soy bean genes that make legume haemoglobin and injecting them into yeast, meaning the burger may be classed as GMO.


What are our pros?

According to Impossible Burger:

“Because we use 0% cows, the Impossible Burger uses a fraction of the Earth’s natural resources. Compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s 100% free of hormones, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients.”

And more on that health note – there’s no cholesterol and is a source of vitamin B-12, which can be hard to come by if you’re not eating meat.

However, it’s heme iron that caused red meat to be classed as carcinogenic, meaning the Impossible Burger will probably have the same effect. Additionally, the burger contains soy-protein which boosts IGF-1 levels when consumed, further fueling cancerous growth. Despite this, it takes fewer servings of animal protein than soy protein to achieve this effect.

Who wins?

It seems both cultured meat and the Impossible Burger have their pros and cons. Both present much more optimistic sustainability outcomes than eating beef and seem to be healthier, however both are still widely unavailable. It seems time will tell who will win this competition, and it may be up to us to decide.

See you next time for another weekly weigh up!


Peace and Science,




Header image under license of Creative Commons.

Other images by Summer Gleeson.


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