Those who are vegetarians simply because they don’t like meat may not be interested in this potential revolution in food production – but if your vegetarian or vegan inclinations are based on a valid moral objection to animal cruelty or concern for the environment, you’ll want to pay attention to this one. A San Francisco company has successfully produced the first meatball cultured from bovine stem cells – and according to all the media reports, it’s actually quite tasty and just as nutritious as one that comes from the slaughterhouse.

The corporate motto of Memphis Meats is, “The Future of Food Has Arrived” – and the company is making good on that claim. Company CEO and co-founder Uma Valeti M.D., who holds a degree in cardiology, says  “This is absolutely the future of meat . . . we plan to do to animal agriculture what the car did to the horse and buggy.” He goes on to point out that growing meat in a laboratory instead of in pastures and on farms will cut greenhouse gases from those sources by 90 percent. “The meat industry knows [its] products aren’t sustainable . . . cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable.”

Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, agrees:

“Cultured meat is sustainable, creates far fewer greenhouse gases than conventional meat, is safer, and doesn’t harm animals. For people who want to eat meat, cultured meat is the future.”

The science bears this out. One of the serious problems with traditional ranching and meat production is that it requires far more energy and resources in terms of inputs than is obtained. For example, for every calorie contained in a typical beefsteak, the cow it came from requires 23 calories in feed. This new technology lowers that ratio to 3-1. Furthermore, contaminants such as feces and bacteria, not to mention antibiotics and pesticides from feed, will be a thing of the past.

Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, Inc. back in 1998, is so confident in the new company’s vision that he invested $330,000 in the operation. He says that cultured meat technology has “the capability to transform how we view the world.”

Memphis Meats Inc. has a solid team of scientists behind it. In addition to Dr. Valeti, the company is also headed by stem cell biologist Nicholas Genovese and biomedical engineer Will Clem – who also operates a chain of barbecue restaurants in his home town of Memphis, Tennessee (and not co-incidentally, is providing a great deal of guidance on the final recipes).

Although Memphis Meats has only produced one single meatball so far, the company’s plans are ambitious. In coming months, they plan on creating sausages, frankfurters and burgers as well as chicken and pork products.

Memphis Meats is not the first company to attempt growing meat in a lab. Last year, a university researcher in the Netherlands successfully produced a hamburger patty from stem cells. However, it was a very costly meal; the price tag was a whopping $325,000. Since then, researcher Dr. Mike Post has managed to get that down to $11. However, the process is still energy-intensive, requiring 34% more than what is required for traditional beef production.

Memphis Meats, Inc. faces similar challenges. Currently, the company’s beef is approximately $18,000 per pound, meaning people won’t be heading down to their local grocer to stock up on it in the immediate future. Still, Valeti is confident. The goal is to have Memphis Meats’ products on grocery shelves within the next five years. Valeti says, “We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured.”

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.