The world’s first lab-grown beef burger was served to several taste testers Monday in London, who tepidly declared it “close to meat.” Virtually every media outlet has focused on the fact that the burger was “the most expensive in the world,” as it cost more than $300,000 to grow and knit together 20,000 strands of beef protein from cow stem cells. Indeed, scientists have a long way to go to make test tube meat more affordable — not to mention more delicious.
But while $300,000 is a significant chunk of change for a burger, few Americans are aware that their conventionally-made $3 Big Mac conceals an expensive production process of its own. Leaving aside the current meat industry’s exorbitant environmental costs — the primary motivation for the test tube burger — simply feeding a single beef cow can average around $494 over its lifetime. That’s not including maintenance, housing, slaughtering, processing, and shipping costs. To put this figure in context, a single hamburger usually contains the flesh of 100 cattle.
Of course, these prices vary based on geography and farm size. However, one estimate from the book “Diet for a New America” found that the creation of a single hamburger patty uses enough fossil fuel to power a car for 20 miles. A pound of meat also requires 2,500 gallons of water; to compare, a pound of wheat requires about 25 gallons.
The federal government helps hide an enormous portion of these costs through agricultural subsidies that have made corn and soy the cheapest feed for cattle. Feed is one of the biggest expenses, as cows need to consume huge amounts in order to gain weight — about 20 pounds of grain for a single edible pound of meat. Water subsidies for farmers have also made meat production much cheaper. One calculation found that, without water subsidies, hamburger meat would cost $35 a pound.
Climate change, however, is throwing a wrench into the meat industry’s status quo. Hotter, longer droughts have pushed up the cost of feed, which led ranchers to cut their herds, which plunged beef production to a 21-year low this year. This chain reaction will soon reach the average American meat-lover, who will have to shell out more money for their hamburgers than they’re used to.