Suppose eating meat didn’t have to involve livestock. Some folks would be concerned, while others may dwell on its possible taste and texture. As it so happens, since the early 1950’s, scientists have been trying to figure out how to grow animal muscle tissue in vitro. The idea is to produce cultured meat that offers the same, if not better, benefits of conventionally produced meat.

Why would anyone want to eat muscle tissue grown in a petri dish rather than on good old animal bone? Isn’t this unnatural? Although cultured meat may not invoke the same primal pleasure as its animal-derived counterpart, it is nevertheless an important component of environmental sustainability. A report by Hanna Tuomisto and Joost Teixeira de Mattos that appeared in this past June issue of Environmental Science & Technology concluded that cultured meat has a substantially lower environmental impact than conventionally produced meat. Their report compared the two kinds of meat based on the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water, and land used for the production of 1000 kg of meat. Producing cultured meat required less energy than producing beef, sheep, salmon, and pork — but not poultry. Cultured meat emitted the lowest greenhouses gas and used both less water and land per kg compared to production of natural meats. Overall, the differences weren’t small: in most cases over 90% less energy was used in the production of cultured meat.

In addition to these environmental benefits, there are also health issues to consider. Proponents of cultured meat claim that fat content would be more controllable and thus would enable healthier meat-eating. The dissociation between meat and animal would also mean fewer opportunities for the bacterial contamination of meat, thus reducing the spread of food-borne illnesses.

Humans are not the only animals that stand to benefit from large-scale production of cultured meat. Large feedlots are notorious for their mistreatment of animals and have prompted a small yet influential proportion of the population to shun meat-eating altogether. Availability of cultured meat may alleviate the ethical dilemmas associated with the treatment of animals in such places — treatment commonly referred to as animal cruelty.

Perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of large-scale cultured meat production would be its public acceptance. It seems clear that many people would feel uncomfortable eating something “unnatural.” Scientists are busy tweaking meat culture methods to improve taste and texture, but some consumers may still be unable to cope. Alternatively, it is possible that a large number of people may not even notice the difference. It seems unlikely that the people constituting one of the largest market for meat — the fast food industry — investigate the origins of their food. But if it is easy to turn a blind eye to the meat industry in an attempt to avoid an ethical dilemma, perhaps with time the birthplace of a juicy cultured burger will also be overlooked.

Yet, despite obvious environmental benefits, cultured meat will not be on the menu anytime soon. Methods of production are still being worked out for processed meats like ground beef and sausage, and more difficult on-bone meats are even further away. For now, proud carnivores can rest assured their steak comes straight from the cow.