Meat-Hacking Scientists: Making Beef Without The Cow

by Ian Fortey

Beef truly is the King of Meats. No other meat would dare try to exist as a porterhouse steak, a hamburger, a taco, a Sloppy Joe, ribs, roast beef and sweet, sweet jerky. Oh, they've tried, but a turkey pretending to be a burger is like Jamie Kennedy playing John Wick.

That said, the world keeps on telling us that cows are the environmental equivalent of six fart-filled cars from the late 70s, and if you ever get to know one you'll be depressed as hell to see it get sent to slaughter. I mean, they're like giant puppy dogs, how could you eat one?!

Because they're delicious. And that's exactly why crews of intrepid, sci-fi-fueled scientists are hacking the world of food to bring you all that beefy goodness without a lick of cow.



Hehehehe. Lick.

Out in the world at large, not everyone wants to (or even can) eat beef. Whether it's for ethical, health or religious reasons, taking down a cow to make a Philly Cheesesteak is just not in everyone's wheelhouse, and that's OK. But we are coming up with alternatives, because science is awesome and weird. For instance, why grow a cow when we can skip the middle man (time, growth and, uh, life) and just grow the steak?

Cultured meat, which is meat made in a lab, uses real animal cells, so it's not like a veggie burger with big, flabby lima beans hanging off the side, mocking your hunger. This is the real thing. In much the same way science wants to help keep you alive by growing new organs in the case of organ failure, it can just grow a slab of New York Strip, made out of cells from the real thing, without all that death and waste and whatnot.

One of the earliest attempts at cultured meat gave the world a $300,000 hamburger, and you better believe it was not worth the money. Later, Memphis Meats engineered some meatballs. Progress is still being made -- the company raised $17 million in 2017, and in 2018 the chicken barons over at Tyson got on board as investors. The idea is to produce meat with about a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, less impact on the environment and, once the process is streamlined and scaled up, cheaper than the old fashioned way. Plus it would be faster, because who has time for a cow to grow up?



"Mom, am I a burger yet? Mom? Mom? MOOOOOOOMMMMM!"

Some people might be afraid of what a cowless beef industry means for the other people in the world who rely on cow byproducts to make a living. And if you weren't, maybe you're thinking about it now. Maybe you're thinking, "Oh God, the leather people. What will become of the leather people?" Well chill out, friends, because leather can be made fairly efficiently without ever putting a cow at risk of losing its precious, burly flesh.

Given, that leather is literally the flesh of an animal, it may be hard at first to understand how you can make cowless leather. The science, however, is not super complicated if you're the kind of madman who sits down and thinks of ways to make skin from things that don't have skin. And the important part of the skin in leather is collagen. Turns out, you can grow collagen as a byproduct of yeast, which is what the company Modern Meadow is doing ... because getting a cow to agree to give you its skin is just super difficult.

The biofabricated leather offers up all kinds of advantages that traditional leather doesn't: you can engineer the color, the thickness, the size ... all of it is custom built from the ground up without having to dye or stretch or whatever it is that leather workers do these days. And it even starts in liquid form, so the concept of 3D printing with leather is on the table.



"Finally, I can afford to join my Black Veil Brides cosplay group!"

Of course, if you're not into lab-grown meat, there's always a more "natural" solution ...

The idea of eating mealworms is not a super attractive prospect to most Western diners. Bugs in general are just not as delicious looking as bacon. But they do have environmental and nutritional benefits when you consider that they take about a tenth of the resources to raise, compared to cattle. They're also far more efficient than pigs or chickens in terms of cost, space and environmental impact. What's not to love about a mealworm?

German food manufacturer Essento has been selling Insect Burgers and Insect Balls on their website and in Swiss supermarkets for over a year now. The burgers and balls are made of mostly mealworm with some veggies and spices thrown in to round out the flavor. Because MMMMMMM.

Given that mealworms use a bit more than "no space at all" and require no deforestation to make room for pastures, their production of greenhouse gases is staggeringly small. Of course, if the gross factor is too much for you, remember that once upon a time, lobster was only eaten by the poorest of the poor because it was considered trash from the sea.



"Get the manager! My plate is INFESTED!"

Ok, so let's step out of "ew, gross" territory and talk about something a little more tolerable.

The Impossible Burger, if you haven't heard of it, pretty well lives up to its name. It's a veggie burger made from wheat and potato proteins and something called leghemoglobin, which can be fermented from soy plants to make the whole thing taste like meat. Basically, scientists whipped up a concoction that allows vegetables to bleed, so you can cook them medium rare if you so desire. Because science is insane, and we can feast on the blood of potatoes now. What a time to be alive.

Reviews suggest the Impossible Burger is so damn convincing as a meat substitute, especially with the psychological effect of actually seeing the thing bleed out when you bite into it, you might never realize it's a veggie burger unless someone tells you. That's pretty impressive. Of course, some reviews suggest it tastes a bit like a dry, crumbly nut jumble, so your mileage may vary ... but for many people, it beats killing a cow. And cows would likely agree. Also, given the ingredients, cows would probably be able to dine on these things as well, which is super weird, right?

Elsewhere in the veggie world are burgers being manufactured from algae, because haven't you always thought you should eat the scum from your pool? Don't eat the scum from your pool, it's probably not safe. But certain kinds of algae are safe and happen to be jam packed with protein. They're also fairly easy to cultivate, and they're extremely high in nutrients on a scale that tends to shame most other food sources. As an added bonus, they can make some of it taste like bacon, already.



"Finally ... a healthy bacon salad."

But what if you're just not a meat person, and all you care about are cartoons and a big ol' bowl of cereal? Well ...

Perfect Day is a company that produces vegan milk without ever having to lay a finger on any udders. Unlike soy milk, almond milk or any of the vegan substitutes that have existed up until now, the process for creating Perfect Day milk is kind of like making beer: yeast has to be fermented. Specifically, they use dairy yeast and sugar to basically do in a lab what a cow does inside its body. You make the same proteins as a cow, just without the cow. Then you toss in plant proteins and casein, which is what gives milk its ability to be turned into other stuff like cheese. And boom: Mad science milk with none of the hassle of livestock.

Cheese, ice cream, yogurt, all of those things can be made with Perfect Day milk, and the taste is said to be indistinguishable from the real thing. And, instead of massive fields for grazing cows, you just need massive tanks for brewing up fresh batches. So you're taking up the same amount of space that Budweiser is taking up, which means far fewer farting animals, at least in theory.

Like this article? Check out "From Batteries To Plastic Wrap: 5 Ways Science Is Making Our Garbage Edible" and "Where's All The Cool SciFi Stuff We Were Promised As Kids? Well, Actually ..."

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