VANCOUVER — Meat lovers may not need to wait for the price of $250,000 test-tube hamburgers to drop. A researcher says that he has created a vegetable-based product capable of winning over the taste buds and wallets of meat and dairy lovers.
Such success could singlehandedly help satiate the world’s growing appetite for meat — a desire that is expected to double meat consumption by 2050. The first such food capable of replicating the taste, texture and nutrition of animal products could very likely debut by the end of this year, said Patrick Brown, a molecular biologist at Stanford University.
“We have a class of products that totally rocks, and cannot be distinguished from the animal-based product it replaces, even by hardcore foodies,” Brown said.
Brown began his work several years ago when he decided to focus the rest of his life upon solving the challenge of weaning the world off of animal farming. He described such animal farming as an “inefficient technology millennia old” that also represents “by far the biggest environmental catastrophe” during a press conference held at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver on Feb. 19.
Less animal farming could reduce the risks of livestock diseases that spread to humans, slash the need for grazing land, and perhaps even help the world avoid food shortages by consuming crops directly rather than feeding them to animals.
“We can do more good by taking on the simple task of figuring out how to convert cheap, abundant sustainable plant materials into nutrient-dense, protein-rich foods that people deliberately choose to eat based on taste and value,” Brown said, “[Rather] than by coming up with imagining sustainable, renewable energy sources or a car that can run for a thousand miles per gallon.”
Other researchers have previously tried tackling the problem by growing animal meat inside the lab — a method based on medical stem cell tactics for growing replacement organs or human tissue. But the costs remain very high, said Mark Post, a physician on the board of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Post’s group hopes to grow several thousand bits of small, lab-grown meat and assemble them into a full hamburger. But the physician also praised Brown’s approach of using vegetable-based material as perhaps the more cost-effective solution — assuming that it replicates the taste and texture of meat and dairy.
“I think we agree on if there is a vegetable-derived product that can take away the craving of a human being for meat, then that would be preferable,” Post said. “If it can be done — and I want to believe in Pat’s work — then that’s going to be the way to go.”
Neither Brown nor Post disclosed their funding sources when asked at the press conference, but Brown said that his funding was publicly available information. Another test-tube meat researcher, Nicholas Genovese at the University of Missouri in Columbia, mentioned getting queries for some of the world’s largest beef suppliers.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Brown is winning over meat lovers who have not embraced today’s meatless products aimed at vegetarians. But Brown sounded confident that he could do the biochemistry tinkering necessary to satisfy any hunger for meatloaf or sirloin steak.
“What you first need is a gateway drug for people to realize that all the things they love can be satisfied by plants,” Brown said.
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