Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat? Maybe You Should.

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Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) co-founder Sergey Brin used his big bank account to help develop an odd but possibly practical food innovation. This technique skips agriculture altogether and uses a lab and test tubes to whip up a synthetic burger. Whether people could respond to it is a whole other matter.

Brin, whose donation was long anonymous, shelled out $330,000 of his own money to make sure development of the synthetic burger continued.

Although this concept sounds disgusting to many people, Brin hasn't been put off. He didn't provide funding out of sheer scientific curiosity, either. He cites a litany of reasons he thinks this is an avenue to pursue. These include future economic viability, environmental sustainability, and plain animal welfare.

When you think of the scale of the modern human diet, raising animals for food is extremely resource intensive and tough on the environment. Between growing crops for feed, the use of land resources, and the production of methane gas from the animals themselves, it's arguable that the current situation is hurtful and may even be impossible to sustain in the future.

How did this burger skip the slaughterhouse and even the cow? Scientists used organic cows' stem cells to "grow" the meat without offing the animals. It took three months to grow the materials needed for an entire patty . Such meat won't contain food-borne diseases like e. coli and don't contain antibiotics.

The more pleasant-sounding term term "cultured-burger" sounds like it could make it in outlets like Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM  ) , but think it through and maybe not. While Whole Foods has aggressively pursued animal welfare standards at its meat counters, whether a fake burger would make the cut is a whole other story.

Whole Foods recently made the impressive vow to require all of its suppliers to disclose if their products contain genetically modified organisms and has long supported GMO labeling. Years ago, when the idea of cloned meat was being batted around, it vowed it wouldn't carry it.

Today's lab-grown freak patty has also been called "Frankenburger," and for that reason alone the public might immediately think about weird science and the types of unintended consequences Mary Shelley warned about long ago.

The backlash against companies such as Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) and DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) is a case in point. These are two companies that are currently in the business of modifying crops with foreign genes. Many environmentalists, consumer groups, and members of the public are concerned about the health and safety of these crops.

The public outcry has become so intense that these GMO companies have recently banded together to provide a website,, which explains their side of the story and the science. That underlines the fact that the public's growing awareness, distaste, and increasingly viral criticism is serious enough for these rivals to become bedfellows. They probably wouldn't be willing if it wasn't looking likely it could hurt their future business.

A "Frankenburger" could easily become slotted in the same creepy category, with fears that humans would be walking guinea pigs if it came to market.

Then again, if we find out that GMOs turn out to do weird things to people's health, what would be the difference in adding Frankenburgers to the mix? Our food supply contains interesting technology as it is.

The search for more responsible meat: Are you feeling lucky?
According to the tasters -- and Brin wasn't even one of those -- the burger received a mixed reception. Among the reactions: It lacked conventional burgers' delicious fat factor, it needed condiments, and it floated somewhere between a Boca Burger and a McDonald's patty as opposed to something more palatable like Angus or Kobe beef. Another comment -- "it's close to meat" -- doesn't sound particularly appetizing. It's meat-like?

There are many ways this could be an interesting turn of events. Would "protein companies" embrace such technology or revile it? The truth is, it may come down to whether such technology could achieve enough popularity and scale to become a highly profitable alternative to raising livestock for slaughter.

Brin's obviously an intelligent guy. His influence has helped with some of Google's more interesting initiatives beyond search, such as the self-driving car and Google Glass. He's one of the individuals who crafted Google to experiment in unexpected areas that management believes one day will provide growth. He's used his own financial resources to further space initiatives, too.

Lab-grown meat is nowhere near perfection or commercial distribution, obviously. Still, its very existence points out a fascinating juxtaposition in the increasingly popular "food ethics" category. Is a lab-grown burger the answer to factory farming and animal brutalization?

Could the potential benefits to the environment one day outweigh the creep factor in reaction right now? Could it help drive more food to the hungry, since fewer crops would be grown for feed, and more would be grown for people? The GMO companies and proponents have long contended that their crops can help major problems around the globe by providing, say, drought-resistance that would allow farmers in more countries increase their food supplies.

Maybe people should embrace alternatives like this one; for those who refuse to embrace vegetarianism or veganism, it's certainly a viable choice (although apparently this type of burger couldn't hit the market for 20 to 30 years). Maybe meat-eaters should, but the big question is whether they would. Would you?

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  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2013, at 4:42 PM, Biloxi8 wrote:

    Keep burning thise Monsanto GMO fields!

    Monsanto must be put out of business.

    Their demise is essential to the survival of the human race.

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Alyce Lomax

Alyce Lomax is a columnist for specializing in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and an analyst for Motley Fool One. From October 2010 through June 2015, she managed the real-money Prosocial Portfolio, which integrated socially responsible investing factors into stock analysis.

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