It may have been the world’s most expensive burger, but this was no haute cuisine. The conglomeration of artificially cultivated protein was engineered to have the look and taste of minced beef, but it didn’t fool the tasters at its public launch in London last summer. “It’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy,” said food scientist Hanni Rützler after nibbling on the 5-ounce patty produced in a laboratory by Mark Post, a tissue engineer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Post made the burger by cultivating muscle stem cells taken from an animal. These were fed a mixture of sugars, amino acids and blood from unborn cows, allowing them to multiply and create muscle tissue, the main component of the meat we eat. The resulting muscle fibres are still shy of edible. Post’s proof-of-concept burger started as yellow-white. He added beet juice and saffron to improve the colouring and flavour, and breadcrumbs and egg powder to get a texture similar to minced beef.

Despite a complex and costly process, Post is confident his product will be able to compete with traditional meat. “Twenty years from now,” he says, “if you enter a supermarket you will have a choice between two identical-looking products. One will have a label that says it has been produced with a lower environmental footprint, the other will have a smoking-type label that says animals have suffered or been killed to produce this meat.” While the technological advance has been lauded, environmentalists are split on the wisdom of the effort, with some arguing that it’s a distraction from getting people to just shift their eating habits to a more plant-based diet. What’s more, with a price tag of US$330,000 for that single patty (bun and sauce not included), it’s a long way from viability.

The science behind lab-grown meat developed out of the stem cell research that began to mature in the 1990s. The first breakthrough, somewhat surprisingly, was financed by NASA. In 2002, the space agency funded a group of scientists who went on to successfully grow goldfish muscle cells, which, they said, “resemble fresh fish fillets”, although they were never tasted in public. The origins of Post’s burger occurred in 2005, when Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen managed to convince the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture to give him €2 million to investigate the potential of creating synthetic meat. Post later spun off his own project and got his big break in 2011, when he received a donation from Google co-founder Sergey Brin and a mandate to deliver a synthetic-beef burger as quickly as possible.

Synthetic-meat advocates such as Post say their lab-grown food can slash the resources needed to sustain our protein needs. The ecological and ethical problems surrounding industrial meat production are well known. The meat-heavy diets of Europe and the United States – which are being copied by newly affluent people in Eastern Asia – are severely taxing the planet’s finite resources. According to one estimate, about 28% of the Earth’s land is used to either feed or raise livestock, with around 60 billion farm animals housed, fed and slaughtered every year. The most obvious benefit would be eliminating the waste that comes with a living and breathing animal: manure, methane emissions, and the conversion of feed into meat. A study published just days before Post launched his burger found that 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, but only 12% of those calories ultimately contribute to the human diet. In theory, growing meat without raising an animal could reduce such inefficiency. Lab meat could also address other problems including groundwater pollution from livestock manure and the overuse of chemical fertilisers for growing animal feed.

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that lab-grown meat produces 78–96% lower greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional meat produced in the EU. It also found that lab-meat production uses 99% less land and 82–96% less water. The study, however, was based on the ideal of lab-grown meat, rather than on the reality of what has been produced to date. It assumed that the meat cells would be fed an algae-based diet, as opposed to the mix of sugar and umbilical cord blood that Post used. What’s more, the benefits of lab meat would be negated to some extent if land taken out of pasture were converted to growing biofuels. If expanded to a large scale, growing meat in giant ‘bio-reactors’ would also confront an energy issue.

“Why go to this much trouble and expense to replace a foodstuff that we simply do not need?” asks Lynne Elliot, chief executive at the Vegetarian Society. “Wouldn’t it be simpler, cheaper and more sustainable to just stop eating meat altogether?” Writing in his book Eating Animals, author Jonathan Safran Foer tracks his personal conversion to a vegetarian diet after spending time researching the meat industry. “The fact that the people have been doing it for a long time, that we crave it or that our bodies seem to have evolved to eat it doesn’t mean all that much to me,” he told me in an interview. For Foer, meat consumption shouldn’t be a dilemma for environmentalists. “There is nothing necessary about it. We only eat meat because we like the taste, and we should stop pretending it is about anything else.”

But, for many people, meat-eating is a dilemma. Despite decades of campaigning (Frances Moore Lappé’s seminal book Diet for a Small Planet was published in 1971), vegetarians remain a tiny minority. Campaigns such as Meatless Monday have encouraged so-called meat reducers, or flexitarians. Yet the number of vegetarians in the US and Europe hovers at around 4–5% of the population, a figure largely unchanged over the past decade. And that’s even with the growing array of non-meat alternatives such as tofu chicken and soya burger, as well as vegetarian restaurants that are growing in number and excellence. Meanwhile, people in China are eating more meat than ever: the country is expected to witness sustained growth in meat consumption for another 15 to 20 years.

“Many carnivores are guilty carnivores: they know that meat-eating is problematic, but like it too much to give it up,” says Iain Brassington, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester. Some animal rights groups appear to have made the political calculation that if they won’t be able to convince the world to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, then lab-grown meat is an acceptable alternative. It’s like a harm-reduction strategy for addressing the routine cruelty of industrial meat production. Compassion in World Farming has come out in favour of synthetic meat, as has People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Always adept at PR, PETA has gone so far as to offer a US$1 million prize to the first scientist who can create a commercially viable lab-grown chicken meat product.

Unlike other technological workarounds – such as animals genetically engineered not to feel pain – lab-grown meat would remove the need for an animal to die (or live) in the first place. It would be the ultimate de-materialisation of agriculture, a sort of logical conclusion to the evolution of farming in which animals have moved from open pasture to industrial feedlots. Instead of factory farming, we would just have the factory – and we might be better off for it.

But is it meat? We’ve been sold meat substitutes such as beef extract in North America and Europe since the 19th century. And many snack foods are nothing more than a cleverly engineered combination of soya and corn. In Post’s view, there is no reason why a supermarket of the future shouldn’t stock his burger side by side with traditional meat. He plans to add fat, and perhaps even blood, to his product to make it more meat-like.

“The meat was never born, has never been ‘alive’ in any usual way we would apply to an animal, and has never been killed,” says Neil Stephens, a sociologist who studies the progress of technology. “It is perhaps best categorised as the ‘living never-born’.”

Julie Gold, a biological physicist at Chalmers Technical University in Gothenburg, Sweden, says Post’s public tasting session did little to dispel people’s uneasiness about having men in white coats engineer their food. “It was very unfortunate that Mark presented the hamburger in a petri dish,” says Gold, who remains a supporter of the technology. “We need to get away from the connection to ‘laboratory’, which conjures up fears of both Frankenstein and GMO manipulation, which is not the case. We cannot bring food into a laboratory and eat there, and we should not be able to eat anything produced in a traditional biology laboratory.”

Even the whiff of controversy has dissuaded many scientists and funders from working on lab-grown meat, according to Stephens, with just 40 researchers around the world working on some aspect of synthetic meat. Lab-meat researchers have found it notoriously difficult to get funding from traditional institutions, with most funding in tissue engineering going towards medical research. Post admits he is still looking for funding for his next stage of development. In an effort to gain that funding, Post has talked up the potential of consumers one day being able to grow their meat at home with ingredients bought at their local market – a kind of home-brew movement for cultured meat.

Not everyone is buying it. Trading a confined-animal feed operation for a bioreactor meat factory only swaps out one industrialised system for another. And going to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for a bio-printed meal is hardly the ideal of self-sufficiency and independence from corporations. Geoff Tansey, a trustee of the Food Ethics Council, says lab meat is likely to worsen existing class divides on food consumption. “Who will eat this? Most likely, it will be a protein for the masses, or the poor,” he says. “The elite will still want the traditional, grass-reared version from real animals.”

Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University in London, agrees. “It lacks cachet,” he says. “It’s not the real thing. We should be aiming for better real food – not bizarre ersatz versions.”

This is an edited version of an article first published in Earth Island Journal.

Tom Levitt is a food and farming journalist. You can follow him on twitter at @tom_levitt