/ Food & Drink

Test tube to plate – let’s start the lab-grown burger debate

In mid-November the world’s first lab-grown burger is due to be eaten at a press conference. Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist at Cardiff University, weighs in on the debate of ‘in vitro’ meat.

Costing €250k, this burger has been grown from cow stem cells in Maastricht, the Netherlands, by Professor Mark Post and his team. This is a radical new way to make meat – fundamentally different to how it’s ever been done before – and one we need to start discussing so we can get on top of the social and ethical issues.

Meat grown from stem cells

I am a sociologist at Cardiff University, and I have interviewed most of the people in the world who are trying to make in vitro meat. I want to understand how an unusual new scientific field comes together, and inform a debate on if, why, and in what form we want this ‘in vitro’ meat.

But first a word of caution, don’t get too caught up in the immediacy of this. This remains a very early stage technology and we are nowhere near having stem cell grown burgers in our supermarkets. The fact it costs €250k to make just one burger gives you an indication of how far there is to go.

Yet, I believe it is essential that we still take this seriously, to get the voice of interest groups and consumers heard from these earliest stages of development, so that their opinions stand a chance of shaping what happens as the technology develops. There’s no point in leaving these discussions until later.

In favour of in vitro meat production

Let’s start with the arguments for. Supporters of in vitro meat list numerous possible benefits, most based upon showing deficiencies in current meat production systems.

They note the world’s population could increase to 9.5 billion by 2060 with increasing demand for meat, and that current meat production practices contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, land, energy and water use. In vitro meat could, they argue, prove a much more sustainable alternative.

In vitro meat could also be a healthier meat, free from animal disease and antibiotics. It could also be a morally superior product, as far less animals are killed in its production. Other benefits include the potential for making innovative new meat products, and providing a meat source for astronauts in space.

But it is sensible for us to question whether these goals are deliverable, as many social and technical barriers remain.

Do we need in vitro meat?

To address global climate change the meat would need to be produced in significant quantities; tonnes and tonnes every day. Hypothetical models of this process suggest production on this scale would have much less impact on the environment than existing processes. But this remains, as I say, a hypothetical model. And then consumers would need to want to eat these tonnes and tonnes of meat. It is not clear if we will. Especially as initially it would probably be more expensive than regular meats, if it ever makes it to market at all.

Currently most of the people engaged in ethical debates about in vitro meat support the technology. But we must remember ethical issues do not just ‘exist’. They are articulated and argued for by groups working from different perspectives and backgrounds.

Those most engaged at the moment are a subsection of bioethicists and animal rights groups. Both are important groups, but other voices are currently missing. Prof Post’s November burger is likely to provoke more people into expressing their opinion, which means it’s time for us to start thinking about meat grown from stem cells. Do we need in vitro meat? Would you eat it?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dr Neil Stephens, ESRC Cesagen, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences – all opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of Which?


If this sounds horrible and unthinkable, what would be think of the idea of rearing and slaughtering animals for food if this had not gone on for centuries? We are naturally suspicious of completely new foods.

Many are now happily eating mould, although the manufacturers of Quorn conveniently forget to mention this on their packaging. If you did not know that, look up Fusarium venenatum, the mould (filamentous fungus) that is the main ingredient of Quorn.

I will give it a go Neil, but please don’t call the new product a burger. I associate the term ‘burger’ with the lowest quality meat, plus goodness knows whatever else.


A very interesting post! I’m a big foodie but am open to the idea of eating lab grown meat in the future. I think Wavechange makes a very valid point – it sounds an odd way of growing meat at the moment but then so is rearing and slaughtering animals if you’ve never seen it before. I have a few queries about the impact this will have however.

First of all, farmers and producers charge a premium for meat products that have roamed free on heather covered hillsides, drinking only natural spring water and receiving massages and music etc etc. If lab grown meat tastes exactly the same, where will the market for premium meat be then?

Perhaps a more disturbing possibility is that a two tier food production system evolves. The rich can afford to buy and eat “naturally” reared meat, whereas the poor are left with bland, tasteless but ultimately cheaper meat?

Also, on a more basic level, I imagine growing meat in a lab will produce meat that is really only suitable for products that combine meat products e.g. burgers, sausages etc. I can’t imagine them growing a beautiful sirloin steak, quality pork belly or lamb cutlets in a petri dish! Will lab grown meat see us lose a diverse range of cuts of meat? If the future is all bland tasting burgers and sausages then perhaps it won’t catch on at all!

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this Neil!


You make good point about food quality, Scott.

In the late 70s we had textured vegetable protein as a cheaper alternative to the sort of meat that goes into pies. It was disgusting, though at least it did not contain pieces of gristle and no animals were slaughtered to make it. It might have appealed to some vegetarians but meat eaters hated it.

The history of Quorn is a long and fascinating story. The failure of textured vegetable protein plus the costs of the fermentation and subsequent processing involved in making Quorn made it essential to produce a product for the higher end of the market. Even though the marketing was rather dishonest, the company has been very successful in producing a meat replacement that is acceptable to meat eaters.

Yes we need to think about quality and price, but maybe not too hard. Many choose to consume burgers and the like. Texture is another difference between cuts of meat. Getting Quorn to have a texture with a similarity to chicken was one of the challenges for the company.

par ailleurs says:
26 September 2012

It all sounds a bit iffy to me. It presumably has some ancient connection to animal cells so wouldn’t be acceptable to vegetarians. I disagree too with the statement that “the rich” pay extra for premium meat products. I’m not rich but I still buy free range and organic. The easy way to do this is to eat a lot less of it and enjoy it more.
As for Quorn, well if you like it fair enough but I always think it’s better to eat meat or not. Disguising something of vegetable or fungal origin as meat is pointless. There are plenty of wonderful veggie dishes from all over the world which make Quorn unnecessary in my book. TVP was truly awful though. I remember it well, but not fondly!


I’m fascinated by this idea – on the up side, it means that no animals should have to die in order for us to eat meat (I’ve run the idea past some vegetarian friends – most say they still wouldn’t eat it, but a couple have said they would eat meat if it could be produced with no pain/suffering for the animal). It also means that potentially we could avoid some of the environmental impact of eating farmed meat – I know that producing a ‘normal’ burger is incredibly resource-intensive, so if the in-vitro burgers of the future are more environmentally friendly, that’s good with me.

On the down-side, I find it incredibly hard to imagine what would happen to the numerous people who work in the farming industry – would they just lose their jobs? How would the country change if we had no more farming for meat? I just can’t get my head around what would happen, and I expect there’d be a lot of resistance to any significant change on this front.

I agree with wavechange on people’s attitudes, though – even if there were initial resistance, I expect people would get used to this method of food production, as we’ve got used to the things that have come before it.


I don’t think the farmers have much to worry about at the moment. The costs of producing artificial meat in this way are likely to be horrendous. I could be wrong and it would be interesting to find out more.


Nikki, farming has been in constant flux since the Romans left! (Or, to be more practical, since commercial farming began at the end of the Middle Ages.) Farmers will always produce what will sell, and in the UK this depends on climate, soil and demand (and maybe subsidy, too).

Over our lifetimes, the rural landscape has been steadily changing. If meat is to come from factories, the farms will produce vegetables and fruits, industrial crops and, of course, grains and roots for processing – they always have done, but the emphasis will change.

So I think that a slow decline in meat production will have a slow effect on the nature of fields and open land. Grasslands will decline in the lowlands to diary production levels and the uplands will continue in meat and wool production. We’ll be long gone before all this will make much difference, though!


As meat becomes more expensive I would eat less, but my gut reaction (no pun intended, but maybe apt) would be to stick to a real animal product, not manufactured. I do not even like the idea of reformed meat. Neither would I trust manufacturers of artificial meat products. Vegetable protein is a better alternative perhaps – meat animals do not convert it very efficiently so it is probably a better mass food? Incidentally, I seem to remember that many of us (in the wealthier nations) eat substantially more food than we need – 2 to 3 times is a figure I seem to remember – so perhaps we should also consider trying harder to reduce consumption.

Sionni says:
5 October 2012

For the vast majority of people the problem is the readily available supply of quick foods, which in human life-span terms is a very recent fact. We are, or our offspring are, trained to accept sedentary work and / or pleasures without any or minimum effort.
We should learn to mobilse constantly and just keep our mouths shut for most of the time.


Hmm… One of the biggest environmental scandals of the last half century (some say twice that) is the heavy advertising which has made us all in the West crave the meat of large animals. Over a century ago, it was the food of the very rich only, for the reasons already mentioned, but through relentless and clever advertising we’ve all become convinced that we’re entitled to eat the ‘rich man’s food’ – red meat. So has grown a huge and wasteful large-scale industry intent on supplying us with what they’ve made us want. You’ll have heard at least some of the regular calculations that if the human food which is used to fatten meat animals were eaten directly instead, there’d be a global food surplus!

I think that the real issue here is the same one that applies to artificial sweeteners – it’s the craving for meat (sugar) that’s the root of the problem; we don’t need yet another industrial solution. As with the debate over animal testing of cosmetics, I think that the issue for vegans will be solved in the end. Yet think what this new product will be: like Quorn, a protein supply with little fat and none of the specific texture that makes real muscle meats what they are – hence the idea of burgers as first try. If we all in the west cut our meat intake to a quarter, farmers can turn to supplying other needs (fuel?) and we can get our meat either from vats, or from animals reared on marginal land not fit for crop growing – land with poor soil, or a shape or relief unsuitable for crops, or a poor climate (but not desert margins).

Maybe the real answer is not for us to travel further down the ‘rich man’s food’ route of meat, fat, refined carbohydrates, salt and chemicals for every meal, but for us to go back to the healthy diets of our wise forebears: meals mostly of vegetables and complex whole starches, with occasional meat, cheese and sugar treats. Eating what people used to call ‘treat foods’ several times each day, with sugar snacks and drinks every half-hour in between leads to all the modern disorders that were rare a century ago, but now kill three-quarters of us, after a prolonged life in sickness rather than in good health. This is impossible, of course. Such a diet isn’t profitable for the giant food corporations which control such things.


I agree with that, though with the exception of meat, the rest is not really the rich man’s diet. Much of the junk is eaten by the less well off and the rich often eat better food. I’m not sure how we make the change in our eating habits or even get started. One thing’s for sure we don’t need different companies trying to make money out of our efforts to eat a better diet.

Incidentally, the first Quorn product was a savoury pie made for Sainsbury, launched in 1985. The idea was to sell Quorn as a premium product and the burgers came along later.


Thanks for that, wavechange. The ‘rich man’s food’ I was talking about is the traditional diet, not the modern one. A century and a half of advertising and manufactured food have tried to introduce things always reserved for the rich to ordinary people – profitably. It kicked off with cheap, adulterated tea in the late 18th century, rose to a high level in the mid-19th century when roller milling gave everyone white flour bread, and has steadily increased to today’s insane level. Now every supermarket has ‘staple meals’ for the poor, who can spend a pound for a cheap microwavable meal rather than cook themselves. And what they then eat is most unlike the food of the rich and middle classes of the past, despite the similar name! I had a good look in the seminal books about Victorian diet for the poor. They would eat ‘cottage pie’ – potato topping turnip, carrot and a little meat, in gravy. The meat was half fat, but the whole meal low fat – and wholesome. Today’s £1 ‘cottage pie’ isn’t quite the same!