I've become a bit of a health nut over the past year, but even I enjoy the occasional splurge at McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). My favorite menu option? The McChicken from the Dollar Menu. The best news for the fitness-guru voices in my head? The Dollar Menu will be phased out of existence by November. It's a wonder that the food chain was able to keep soaring meat prices at bay for this long, but reality has finally caught up. Simply put, it's not economical to sell hamburgers for $1.
Take a step back and you'll realize that the current state-of-the-art technology for meat production is actually pretty archaic. It's inefficient, expensive, and resource-hogging, and it nets a horrible return on the energy invested. I'm not advocating that everyone go vegan or vegetarian -- quite the opposite, actually. What if the technology existed to produce meat from the same cells found in cows, poultry, and pigs in a large-scale biomanufacturing facility? This innovative solution will be available in our lifetimes, thanks to 3-D bioprinting and tissue-engineering companies such as Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO) and Modern Meadow. Can it bring back the Dollar Menu, too?
The (un)economics of meat production
I recently spoke with renowned agricultural economist Dr. Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon, about the forces driving food prices higher. It's a complex issue, but the two largest factors are recent severe droughts and an increased dedication of farmland for ethanol production. Look at how the three major animal feed sources -- corn, dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), and soybean meal (SBM) -- have increased in price since the introduction of the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005, especially in the last two marketing years affected by the 2012 drought.
It doesn't seem so outrageous for McDonald's to can the Dollar Menu after looking at that chart, but the inefficiencies of raising animals for meat production don't end there. The world's 7 billion human inhabitants require an industry of 60 billion domesticated land animals that take up 33% of the planet's ice-free land, consume 8% of our water supply, and emit 18% of human-related greenhouse gases. Here's what goes into making a single quarter-pound hamburger patty:
- 6.7 pounds of animal feed.
- 52.8 gallons of water.
- 74.5 square feet of land.
- 1,036 BTUs (enough to power seven iPads).
- 13.4 pounds of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.
Multiply that by the nearly 300 million tons of meat produced worldwide each year, and you can see the problem. We can clearly put our land to better use in both economic and environmental terms. And if we want to feed the planet, we may just have to look for a different approach: By 2050 the world will need to produce more than 500 million tons of meat each year. Is there a better way?
Science to the rescue
Organovo is developing a novel 3-D bioprinting platform with a near-term focus of creating functional human tissues and a long-term focus that's even more ambitious. The company recently announced results from a 40-day study in which its 3-D printed liver tissue demonstrated the ability to produce important proteins and respond to liver toxins -- just as a "natural" liver does. The novel platform has the potential to expedite drug discovery for pharmaceutical companies and save billions of dollars and many lives in the process. In addition, the company could one day grow fully functional human organs and nerves for transplantation, print cancer tumors for research and personalized medicine applications, and create disease models for the most important human organs.
That's just the beginning. If you think of Organovo as a precision tissue engineering company, then the opportunities open up considerably. Any material (product) created by a living organism can be made from cell culture technologies -- we just have to design an optimal system. Those materials do and will include meat, whether you like it or not.
Sound too futuristic? Don't tell that to Andras Forgacs, who co-founded Organovo and Modern Meadow -- a company that creates ultra-sustainable leather and meat with its novel tissue engineering platform. Forgacs believes the platform would come with substantial benefits over traditional livestock production, including:
- 99% less land required.
- 96% less water consumed.
- 96% fewer greenhouse gases emitted.
- 45% less energy required.
- No risk of livestock diseases.
- No animals harmed.
Further, meat produced with tissue engineering could be fine-tuned for the most desirable taste, color, texture, nutritional value, and look. I know it sounds crazy, but consider that the meat would be produced from the same exact cells as in, say, farm-raised cattle -- just without the inhumane slaughtering part. The technology could be used to bring food production here on Earth to the 21st century or on spacecraft traveling to Mars and the asteroid belt for the latest mining operation.
Foolish bottom line
If companies such as Organovo and Modern Meadow continue to make progress in developing their platforms, you can bet that one day we'll be able to produce the finest, leanest meats through biotechnology for a fraction of the cost of traditional livestock methods. The world will probably need a giant public awareness campaign to understand the benefits of meat produced from tissue engineering. However, it actually skirts many of the ethical questions surrounding "modern" industrial farming. Knowing the benefits, I'll be first in line for the grand reintroduction of McDonald's Dollar Menu -- featuring lab-grown hamburger patties -- in 2033 (fingers crossed). Who's with me?
Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio or his CAPS page, or follow him on Twitter, @BlacknGoldFool, to keep up with his writing on biopharmaceuticals, industrial biotech, and the bioeconomy.
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