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Hacking Meat: Can technology make us eat fewer animals?

One of the most interesting — and controversial — fields in tech these days involves in-vitro meat. By growing our meat in labs from animal cells — so the theory goes — we could eventually wean ourselves off of our dependence on livestock as a protein source. One day, we may even be able to print our steaks and chops out from a 3D printer.

There are reasons beyond animal welfare to find meat alternatives, though. If the rest of the world’s rapidly increasing population went through meat at the rate we Americans do (we consumed 92.3 billion lbs. from 9 billion animals in 2011 alone), we’d soon run out of animals to butcher — or at least the space and the feed to raise them. There are also big environmental and health concerns in industrial meat production, from the run-off and greenhouse gases emanating from toxic manure to the antibiotics used to keep livestock upright.

Creating an in-vitro meat supply might seem like the answer to all those problems, but we’re still years away from seeing viable, affordable artificial meat – and probably many more years from convincing the public to eat it. But what if we could use technology in other ways to cut our dependence on natural meat?

Hack MeatIn New York this weekend, a gaggle of tech entrepreneurs, software developers, butchers, farmers, food industry executives and health policy wonks are gathering to brainstorm the issue of meat. Held by the blog Food+Tech Connect and called Hack//Meat, the hackathon’s goal is to come up with technological answer to the problems of meat supply, processing, distribution, health and ultimately consumption. One of big problems the group will tackle is how — simply put — to get people to eat less meat.

One of the more interesting proposals to come out of Hack//Meat is from Foodpairing, a food industry research company and app developer. Foodpairing has broken down flavor to its molecular components and has compiled databases that can match the flavor of those ingredients against other completely different ingredients. By compiling “foodpairing trees” its technology can identify vegetable or seafood ingredients that reinforce the flavor of different meats, or in some cases, can act as a substitute for a meat entirely. AS Foodpairing co-owner Bernard Lahousse wrote on Food+Tech Connect:

The flavor molecules of an ingredient are not unique to that specific ingredient. Basil doesn’t taste like basil because there is only one basil flavor, but because there is a blend of flavor molecules, many of which you can also find in other ingredients. The same is true for meats like chicken. The flavor of chicken contains about 20 important flavor molecules, some of them you can find in coffee, bread, potato, mushroom, etc.


While these kind of techniques have been applied in haute cuisine’s molecular gastronomy for awhile, Lahousse is proposing that they can be applied on a mass market scale, and not in the sense of just substituting a vegetable patty for a beef patty or tofu for a chicken strip. By adjusting recipes and cooking techniques to include ingredients that reinforce the meat flavors we love, we can enjoy the same cuisine while minimizing — if not eliminating entirely — the actual amount of meat used.

Meat structure image courtesy of Georgia Institute or Technology

15 Responses to “Hacking Meat: Can technology make us eat fewer animals?”

  1. You won’t have to convince me to eat in-vitro meat, or anything like it.

    I’d *much* rather eat a product that never had feelings, a mother, or eyeballs.

    Been waiting for this ever since I read about “chicken little” in Fred Pohl’s “The Space Merchants” in the mid 1960’s (published in 1952.)

    Quite aside from the reduction in pollution, the horrific conditions many food animals are raised in, the often horrible way they are killed, the variability of food stock across many genetic lines and upbringing environments and drug regimens, I’d just like to see mankind grow up enough to forgo the incredible hubris that underlies the “they’re here for us to eat” mentality. We can be better than that.

  2. Meat is a disaster for the environment – more greenhouse gases are released from the cows people eat than the cars people drive.

    Meat is a disaster for your health – people who eat beef live shorter lives. The reasons are well documented and understood. But switching to fish is also an environmental disaster.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Tobias, there are definitely still environmental and health consequences to in-virto meat as well. Muscle needs to be fed in order to grow so we would still have to make “feed”.

  3. Kevin Fitchard

    Edward, do you find this line of argument actually works? There’s a lot of room between vegetarian and 3-meal-a-day carnivore, and there are a lot of people who would be persuaded by the sustainability argument. If your goal here is see fewer animals butchered for food, deriding people who want to help you accomplish that goal seems counterproductive.

  4. Edward Sanchez

    Can you rename the title to:
    While you can already live a happy and healthy life eating nothing but plant-based foods today, can technology help convince selfish/apathetic people to eat fewer animals?

  5. Bruce Miller

    Quote from net:
    “”One of the most significant events in this recasting was the realization in the early 1980s that the average American consumed as many natural resources as 1000 average inhabitants of India. It was also realized that the average American produced as much waste (including the all important carbon footprint) as 2500 Indians! even today, the ratios are still approximately 1:300 (US compared to India) and 1:500 compared to China.””
    “A key ingredient of a collapsing empire is total ignorance at the top: let them eat brioche, let them eat cake.”—Stacy Herbert
    “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
    Vickie Mansour-Hasan writes: “God Bless All People, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew or other, be they young or old, rich or poor. May God protect us, guide us, and keep us all safe. May we see tomorrow. May we greet tomorrow with a smile. May we learn to see beyond the petty nationalism that let’s us deny each other’s identity, each other’s dignity, each other’s humanity. May God help us to stop praying for nations the way we pray for our favorite football team. May God teach us to pray for each other. Amen.”
    If Americans planted gardens in place of lawns, and learned to share, they would be a prosperous nation once again!

  6. Daniel Neumann

    This article is riddled with typos. Don’t you guys proof before posting?

    “technology car reduce OUR dependance”

    and 92 billion punds from 10 MILLION animals?

    those must be some big ass chickens…

  7. Chris George

    Not sure that figuring out how to eat less meat is a smart long term solution… However, I’m a big fan of the book, The Physiology of Taste… You must read that book if you are interested in exploring the origins of gastronomy and food pairings. Have fun

  8. Danielle

    This is scary. Not the idea of “creating” meat flavors -most of the food people eat has artificial flavoring anyway. What’s really scary is we may not have enough meat to feed people before there is an alternative. I hope people figure out that fruits and vegetables are a far better choice, period. You see the wars fought over oil, I don’t even want to imagine the fight over food.