The Promise of 3-D Printed Meat

Even the most amateur environmentalist can tell you that meat and livestock production takes a serious toll on the planet. A one-pound hamburger, for example, requires more than 200 gallons of water and 300 square feet of grazing for the unlucky cow, according to a study in the Journal of Animal Science.

Enter 3-D printing, the old technique that’s recently gotten lots of buzz for its application to manufacturing, medicine, and now, food. The basic idea behind 3-D printing is that with the right core ingredients, you can literally produce anything. Isolating those ingredients down to a molecular level means that they can be melded and organized at will, essentially stacked in layers until you have, voila, a homemade steak.

I’m exaggerating a little. You can’t actually produce anything the same way it would appear in nature or at the supermarket—especially not a full t-bone ready for the barbecue. But creating protein is well within the realm of possibility. In fact, it’s currently being done. Back in 2011, Jeff Bartholet (a National Geographic contributor) wrote a story for Scientific American that looked at ongoing research pursuing a future full of meat grown in petri dishes rather than on farms.

Less that two years later, the prospect is scaling. A company named Organovo Holdings that developed a way to manufacture human tissue is working with a software developing company to make a 3-D printer of muscle. You can apply that muscle toward helping people regrow muscle mass. Or you can grow muscle—or in other words, meat—from animals like cows and chickens and pigs. The product is a sort of synthetic meat. Modern Meadow, a leading meat research company is trying to come up with “novel biomaterials” to create meet much easier and simpler.

In an “Ask Me Anything” chat on the website Reddit this week, Modern Meadow’s CEO Andras Forgacs explained that the inputs are mostly animal cells taken from an animal through a biopsy mixed into a soupy cell culture liquid with the nutrients to allow the cells to grow. Then energy is added to get the cells to mature and, after it “matures” with time, it’s formed into meat products. The process is scientifically rigorous, but not that complex. As the company is refining the culture liquid to maximize rate of cell growth, it’s not hard to see several years from now a similar process you can complete in your kitchen.

None of that speaks to the biggest question determining its success: how it tastes. Modern Meadow’s scientists have already tasted some. The ratio of fat to protein that gives most conventional meat its flavor, they’ve said, could use some refining. The obvious final step might be a PR campaign. Few things sound less appetizing than synthetic lumps of cells you build in your garage. Pack some compelling statistics on population growth and global hunger with a few smart marketing of celebrities loving their synthetic meat, and you just might have a product people are willing to not immediately rule out.