More than meats the eye

In February 2004, Mark Zuckerberg — with the help from two rowers (or so David Fincher tells us) — set out to connect the world via social networking, a technological innovation founded on the hypothesis that the world is better together. Now, depending on where you sit on the optimism–pessimism spectrum, it can be argued that mass connectivity has in-fact sucked us into a wormhole-like vacuum of narcissism, self-loathing and paranoia. So, once again we rely on technological innovation to reverse the seemingly adverse effects of Facebook’s utopian dream. It appears that the aforementioned paradox existing between technological innovation and global crisis has been an ongoing theme running through the tapestry of human existence. Attributed to our inherent desire to create, we often advance ourselves into problems … and re-advance ourselves out of them …

It can be argued that the same paradox exists between technological advancement and industrialised farming. And I present here a seemingly simplistic timeline:

advancements in medical and clinical sciences proliferates global populations — increases in population lead to heightened global food demands — industrialised agriculture facilitates global food requirements — industrialisation of agriculture leads to a subsequent global crisis and ecological meltdown

This crisis and meltdown is attributed to a multitude of complex factors, which are highly interrelated, multivariate and intimately correlated to technology. Oh, and they’re also listed here:

  • Physiological — rapid growth, as a consequence of diets and antibiotics administered for animals to reach mandated weight, induces subsequent growth of non-edible biological elements (Horowitz, 2006)
  • Ecological — contribution of greenhouse gas emissions to environments, due to unsustainable numbers of livestock, with beef emitting fifty times more greenhouse gases than beans or grains (calorie for calorie)(Weis, 2013).
  • Epidemiological — long-term overconsumption of animal substances can promote negative health effects in humans (debate for another time)(Simon, 2013).

So now what? Well, it appears we turn once again to our creative intuitions to adapt our way out of meltdown, and to the powers of Silicon Valley to reinvent the way we think. Or, to more appropriately phrase it, the way we consume. Start-up company Hampton Creek — who earned their stripes in the Valley with their plant-based condiments — have announced that for the last twelve months they have been developing technology to facilitate the creation of in vitro meat or, as the techies are calling it, ‘clean meat’.

In vitro meat technologies are biotechnological techniques conducted to produce meat protein in isolation — using stem cell technology — and where no animal body is required. Muscle fibres are cultured directly in sheets and/or in edible scaffold and fed with nutrient serum. This process induces a stimulus similar to exercise, and promotes protein synthesis. The beauty of this phenomenon is that it answers a multitude of the negative factors associated with industrialised meat farming, as previously discussed. Primarily, use of stem cell technology allows for the cultivation of cell lines from a single animal, thus promoting a vast reduction in the use of animals. Compositionally, fat content can be manipulated, with the inclusion of preferable lipids, the volume of which can also be controlled. Animal structure can also be manipulated, with the removal of bones, skin and nervous system structural elements not required for digestion. Reductions in disease control could also be expected with the adoption of in vitro meat, with the elimination of waste and methane generated by animals and/or ecological systems.

So if in vitro meat is an answer to many of the issues surrounding industrialised farming, what is everyone’s problem with it? What is everyone’s beef? (Sorry!) Well, in fact ‘clean meat’ has attracted support from a great variety of governing bodies and individuals, including animal rights activists, such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who offered a $1 million prize for the first individual/organization to create an affordable in vitro chicken breast. But it’s safe to say common knowledge around lab-grown meat is scarce and it remains a contentious topics, for two primary reasons:

  • Price — in vitro meat production is very dear. A single burger created by Google’s Sergey Brin was reported to have costed $325,000. However, price and technology are extremely temporal factors and prices will surely decline rapidly. There was once a time where an automobile was a luxury and households rarely owned colour televisions, remember (I don’t!).
  • Texture — Brin’s burger was also described as texturally troublesome and like ‘having the mouth feel of cake’. This, however, is deemed to have been a biological issue, and more recent adaptations of in vitro meat more closely mimic muscle tissue — replacing blood vessels and connective tissues. It appears, much like the iPhone, that ‘clean meat’ is in constant beta mode, and technological improvements will come thick and fast.

Issues surrounding in vitro meat production are, on the whole, within our technological capacities to resolve. There will be people quick to dismiss the notion due to an aversion for change, or those who find it a conceptually daunting thought. In fact, I would be surprised if the vast majority of the human population doesn’t reject ‘clean meat’ when it comes to full fruition. When it comes to cancer survival, we have an extremely ‘stop at nothing’ attitude — we deem it as a great threat and pretty much any biological or technological process is accepted if survival rates are increased, even by nominal percentages. This is due to our inherent desire for survival and I would argue that we need to view industrial farming in the same light. The climate is shifting vastly, with a global shift of 0.7 degrees Celsius in the last decade, approximately 10 times faster than the acceleration of ice-age recovery warming. Although this warming cannot merely be attributed to emissions from industrial farming, a contemporary report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, reports that the livestock sector generates 18% more greenhouse gas — as measured in CO2 equivalent — than transport. This is an imperative consideration, as electric cars were once a frowned upon notion, but now we have nations (predominantly Scandinavian) aiming to eliminate selling of domestic petrol. Similarly, in vitro meat production offers a plausible solution for reductions in greenhouse gas contributions, and should be viewed in the same light as its automobile counterpart; whilst greatly reducing the apparent evils of animal husbandry.

It is, without a doubt, a massive change and would require a great shift in how we perceive our food, but when the longevity of our ecosystems and global climate is at stake, I would argue that it is time to reinvent our attitude.


Galusky, Wyatt. 2014. “Technology As Responsibility: Failure, Food Animals, And Lab-Grown Meat”. Journal Of Agricultural And Environmental Ethics 27 (6): 931–948. doi:10.1007/s10806–014–9508–9.

Global Warming : Feature Articles”. 2017. Earthobservatory.Nasa.Gov.

Horowitz, R. (2006). “Putting meat on the American table: Taste, technology, transformation”. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Simon, D. R. (2013). “Meatonomics: How the rigged economics of meat and dairy make you consume too much-and how to eat better, live longer, and spend smarter”. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

Weis, A. (2013). “The ecological hoofprint”. London: Zed Books.



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Frank Hopkins

Frank Hopkins

Experimentation Data Scientist, specialising in digital experimentation. Posts ranging from data science to website optimisation and digi-analytics.