As a planet-conscious carnivore I've often struggled with my love of homemade burgers and the environmental consequences that beef farming is having on the world.

At the Beyond the Line of Sight conference in Auckland this week I learned about the role of science and technology in the future of food and farming and became fascinated by the research of Professor Mark Post.

He is the pioneer of cultured meat technology, thanks to a Dutch government-funded programme investigating "in-vitro meat".

Lab-grown meat or cultured beef is made by harvesting a type of stem cell from the neck of a living cow. Known as myosatellite cells, they repair muscle tissue.


After harvesting, the cells are transferred to a vegetable derived nutrient gel in a petri dish and kept in a controlled environment which allows them to split and grow into muscle cells. After a few weeks the cells merge into muscle fibres called myotubes and start synthesising proteins which grow into strands of tissue. It takes 20,000 strands to make a burger patty with some added synthesised fats and muscle texture. Apparently it doesn't taste too bad.

Although many people turn their nose up at the thought of a lab-grown burger, the obvious advantage of synthesised meat is that it removes the issues around animal cruelty.

Only a single cow is needed for the cell donation process which involves a tiny biopsy cell-harvesting procedure. The cow is then free to continue with its life. The sustainability argument of cultured meat is also hard to challenge. An Oxford University study showed it used 45 per cent less energy, produced 96 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions and used 99 per cent less land than traditional beef production.

This is not the first time that our agriculture industry has been through a disruptive challenge.

In the early 20th century the industrial revolution replaced animal labour with machinery which reduced the amount of land needed to feed farm animals. But the introduction of machinery increased our fossil fuel consumption.

Over the next few years the world may see a similar disruptive shift as emerging technologies allow factory-cultured meat to replace animal meat, with the transformation pitched as an environmentally friendly and cruelty-free alternative to livestock.

The biggest solution that I see laboratory-grown meat providing is with the challenge of the world food shortage problem.

The United Nations expects the global population to grow from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. According to the UN, the amount of meat eaten per person will double in that time. The planet just doesn't have enough land or resources to cope with this increase so needs to rethink how the world's population consumes protein.

It's still a concept product and costs $68 a kilo, so conventional beef is cheaper. However as the technology improves the price will inevitably go down. Muufri, a vegan synthetic milk made from yeast cultures, and Clara Foods' chicken-free egg whites are already in the animal-free protein market.

The challenge of competing with synthesised products might be a tough one for New Zealand's future. Due to the use of genetically modified yeast in many of the synthesised products, it's going to be hard for us to compete with this new technology without a change in GM legislation and only time will tell if the global market is willing to pay more for a real animal product or a cruelty free, green, clean meat solution.

• Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson.