Where’s the (synthetic) beef?

There’s an interesting story in the Guardian today about the production of the world’s first synthetic beef burger[1. It came to my attention because much of the funding came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, but although the Guardian leads with this fact, I think it’s the least interesting part of the story.], which is great news for anyone (like me) who’s attracted to vegetarianism for ethical and environmental reasons, but who would struggle with a meat-free diet.

A team led by physiologist Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University [grew] 20,000 muscle fibres from cow stem cells over the course of three months. These fibres were extracted from individual culture wells and then painstakingly pressed together to form the hamburger that will be eaten in London on Monday. The objective is to create meat that is biologically identical to beef but grown in a lab rather than in a field as part of a cow.

“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein,” Dr Post told the Guardian before the event. “So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce] any methane.”

I’m excited by this because it’s been a long-term promise of synthetic biology to improve food production efficiency by skipping the time-consuming phase of beef production known as “walking around farting and eating grass”.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus observed that population growth must be expected to ultimately outstrip humanity’s capacity to produce food (which goes by the gloriously dramatic name of the “Malthusian catastrophe“). The common expression of this idea is that population grows geometrically (doubling at a fixed rate) but food production only grows arithmetically (increasing by a fixed quantity in a given time). This supposition makes some amount of intuitive sense. Food production would seem to be bounded by available space, while person production grows with the number of people. So like most people I accepted the idea as obvious when it first crossed my attention.

If this cow had a chance, she'd eat you and everyone you care about.
If this cow had a chance, she’d eat you and everyone you care about.

As it turns out though, food production has historically grown geometrically. The world population has grown sevenfold in the last 200 years, and although we haven’t been as successful as we might have been at ensuring its fair distribution, we’ve had no trouble keeping up with production. In fact the amount of food produced per capita is increasing, and has been for some decades.

The trend in global food production is reminiscent of other technological growth curves, notably the increase in computing capacity described by Moore’s law. In all cases the overall shape looks like a continuous geometric curve, as if driven by an endless and increasing stream of very small advancements. But these curves are actually better viewed as the sum of a series of more significant developments.

The effects of most new technological developments can be viewed as a logistic curve. This is a sort of stretched S shape — it starts off looking like a geometric curve, but at a certain point the growth slows an then it flattens out asymptotically. Think of the initial large improvements brought about by a new technology, followed by a levelling off as it approaches its maximum usefulness. What’s interesting is that If you overlay these logistic curves on top of each other, in aggregate they produce a geometric curve. That is, as long as the innovations keep coming.

The upshot of all of this is that so long as we can keep producing improvements to our technology, and applying that technology as widely as possible, we can keep up with the demands of population growth. With the most current estimates predicting that world population will top out at about ten billion (around the middle of this century) it seems well within our capacity to keep pace at least until then. This latest development, once it’s commercially viable, may reduce the energy requirements of meat production by 80% or more. It’s just the next development in the sequence, helping to maintain the exponential growth rate that humanity has maintained for centuries.