How Long Until We Can Grow Thanksgiving Turkeys in a Lab?
Meatballs and hamburgers have already passed the first hurdle, surely our holiday meals can’t be far behind.
Earlier this year, a San Francisco startup debuted the world's first lab-grown meatball, complete with taste test and review. The verdict from the unnamed taster: "it tastes like a meatball." A low bar, but at least this future meat could pass it.
This moment didn't receive as much public fanfare as the world's first lab-grown burger back in 2013, and perhaps it's because those interested in this technology are getting antsy for it to progress. Not only could it mean enjoying real meat without the need for animal suffering and slaughter, but studies show it would be much less resource-intensive, and would have a way lower impact on the environment. Industry leaders predict we could be as close as five years away from seeing lab-grown hamburger on the grocery store shelves. It got me wondering: if lab-grown burgers are within sight, could a full, lab-grown turkey on our Thanksgiving table be far behind?
I reached out to a number of experts in the industry to answer this question, and their responses varied wildly from lab-grown turkeys as soon as ten years to, well, "never." But the answers expose the reality that this industry still needs to overcome a number of scientific and practical hurdles before we enter into the future of food.
"A common misconception that we run into is that it's just a matter of time," said Erin Kim, the communications director for New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute that focuses on lab-grown meat (they prefer the term "cultured meat.")
"It was only in 2013 that Mark Post created that first [cultured] beef hamburger," Kim said. "He and a lot of other commentators said things at the time like 'within five to ten years there will be a cultured meat product on the market.' We're now close to the four year mark and the unfortunate truth is that we're not really anywhere near that."
Despite Kim's realism—she finally acquiesced to my question and predicted that, perhaps, a full grown turkey "might" be possibly "within a few decades"—New Harvest may actually be closer than any other group to producing a lab-grown turkey. Earlier this year, the nonprofit gave a two-year, $118,000 research grant to Marie Gibbons, a science masters student at North Carolina State University, to investigate growing cultured turkey meat. She's already successfully created the world's first cultured turkey nugget—though it's tiny, so New Harvest has dubbed it a "micronugget:"
But a micronugget does not a Thanksgiving turkey make, and even our most attainable short-term goal—lab-grown ground meat of some variety or another—faces some lingering challenges.
To grow cultured meat, you start by collecting some stem cell tissue from a living animal—a process that doesn't require you to kill the animal and is more or less painless. Then, the muscle cells are separated and placed in an optimized environment, where they're fed and begin to multiply naturally. These muscle cells also naturally bond together, eventually forming tubes that can be kind of mashed together to make ground meat. The texture is, apparently, spot-on, but the taste is a bit lacking, according to those who have tasted these meats, something researchers are working to improve.
Another issue with this process is the "food" given to these cells: it's called fetal bovine serum, a substance found in the blood of unborn calves whose mothers were slaughtered in the dairy industry. It's not only expensive but also kind of defeats the purpose of cultured meat; if we're going to need to keep raising and killing real cows to get the lab-grown meat, why bother? Leaders in the cultured meat industry say they're working on a plant-based alternative to fetal bovine serum, but they're not there yet, which is one of the biggest challenges.
There's also the limits of the technology as it stands. Ground meat, and even sandwich-style slices of meat, are both well within the realm of possibility, as proven by the hamburger and meatball that we've already seen. But a chicken breast, steak, or, indeed, a full turkey, those are much more complicated concepts. To grow a cut of meat that thick, you need more than muscle cells. You need bones. You need blood.
"Most people seem to concur that about a centimeter thick [piece of meat] would be the most realistic we could expect anytime soon," said Liz Specht, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports research into alternative food sources. "To attempt to perfuse, differentiate within, and maintain something in cell culture with the size and complexity of an intact turkey is a whole other ball game from what we're currently working towards."
Specht was my most pessimistic prognosticator, stating that she doesn't "imagine that ever being created." There could be a lack of demand to invest that kind of intensive research—other than Thanksgiving and Christmas, whole turkeys don't represent a large part of the meat market. And if funding were to dry up for this kind of research, or public interest never pushed it far enough, there's definitely a chance none of these ideas could ever make it to market.
But, a lab-grown Thanksgiving turkey is not off the table, pun intended. An Israel-based company called SuperMeat is currently working on producing lab-grown chicken breasts and Memphis Meats, the creators of that meatball, say a full Thanksgiving bird is "clearly in our roadmap."
"These leaps [in technology] might seem like big leaps at this point, but when we talked about going from a regular Nokia cellphone to an iPhone, those were huge leaps and I don't see anything different for cellular agriculture," said Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder and CRO of Memphis Meats.
Valeti told me his company plans to have its first product on the market—he won't reveal what it will be yet—within about five years. After that, assuming the market continues to grow, he said a turkey would not be far behind.
"If there's a big incremental leap where we've got the cost down to a point where we can start putting the next product to the public, I'd say it would be right after that in the five to ten year horizon," Valeti told me. "So, if someone is a freshman in high school now, by the time they finish college they could have a Memphis Meats turkey at their Thanksgiving table."
It's always tough to make predictions, especially when it comes to scientific breakthroughs, but the technology in this sector is promising. Kim even suggested that if a whole turkey as we know it weren't possible, it might be possible to sculpt enough lab-grown turkey into a "turkey shape" to satisfy the masses.
Either way, if you're someone who is uncomfortable with the impacts of our current food system—be it animal welfare, the environment, or public health—there's reason to be hopeful. We just may be carving into a lab-grown turkey some Thanksgiving in the future, though it might not look exactly as you'd expect.