It is groundbreaking, unusual, and it might change the world – but even with global companies like Nestle now wanting a slice of the non-meaty, lab-grown pie, the question remains: would you eat it?

Some people expected it to be softer. Others thought it was intense but not that juicy. And one person said he missed the fatty bits. All in all, the reviews for the world’s first hamburger grown in a laboratory, rather than taken directly from a real-life cow, were mixed.

The bill was a bit of a shocker too: £215,000 for a single burger.

But it was definitely the start of something and the consequences of that first tasting of a lab-grown burger in London in 2013 are still emerging. At the time, meat grown by scientists from cells taken from a live cow seemed extraordinary and, to some people, disturbing and unpleasant. There was also no indication at the time when the burgers might leave the lab and end up on people’s plates.

It’s getting closer though. Since that development and launch eight years ago – funded by the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin – several big food companies have recognised the potential of the development and invested in the project, the latest being Nestle.

The Swiss firm has just confirmed it’s working with the Israeli start-up Future Meat Technologies to develop “lab-based meat”, or “cultivated meat”, or even “clean meat” if you prefer. No-one has quite worked out what to call it yet. For Nestle and the other companies that are involved, the motivation could be environmental, or ethical, or moral – the CEOs of many of the companies getting into the field are vegan.

But there are also commercial and financial considerations. The number of people adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is growing. Carnivores are also becoming more likely to limit their consumption of animal products because of their concern for the environment – and what that means is that the market for alternatives to real meat is growing. Companies like Nestle want a slice of the non-meaty pie.

The obvious next question is: will people buy it? Would vegans and vegetarians be prepared to eat meat grown in a lab if it could be shown that no animal had suffered? And what will the meat-eaters do?

Brought up on the idea that meat comes from an animal in a field (or – just as likely these days – an animal in a windowless factory), would they embrace the idea of meat developed in a lab instead? The surveys show that most consumers would at least be prepared to try it, but the issues are complicated.

Perhaps a good person to ask would be a vegan – and especially a vegan with a PhD in molecular biology. Dr Justine Butler is also a senior researcher and writer at the campaigning vegan charity Viva! and when asked if she would ever try a “cultured burger”, the answer is definitely no.

“The technology has the potential to save billions of animals’ lives, which can only be a good thing,” she says.

“But as a vegan I wouldn’t want to eat meat of any kind as I don’t regard animals as a commodity.”

Her concerns, she says, focus on the idea of an animal as a product but she is also worried that the process to remove the cells could be painful and cruel for the animal.

The hard cell

How the process works is still developing but Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, who produced the original lab burger in 2013, used stem cells extracted from the muscle of a cow under anaesthetic. He then used a culture of nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help the cells develop and multiply.

Within three weeks, there were a million of them which he then divided into smaller dishes where they coalesced into small strips of muscle about a centimetre long. When there were enough, they were compacted into a burger and cooked.

As the food critics confirmed at the unveiling of the burger, it was mostly a success taste-wise, with some reservations – the reviewers confirmed it tasted like a burger. But there are several issues with it. The first is the colour: the muscle comes out white which means the naturally-occurring compound myoglobin has to be added to it to make it red.

The other stumbling block is the process used to make the cells multiply – the original medium used was largely foetal bovine serum taken from the hearts of live calf foetuses, which Dr Butler says is cruel.

However, even here there are rapid developments. Dr Butler recently spoke to Didier Toubia, co-founder of Aleph Farms in Israel, another of the start-ups that is seeking to develop cultured meat, and he revealed that his company has developed a growth medium that does not include any component obtained from animals.

The Dutch company Mosa Meat has done something similar. It means that one day you could eat a burger made from meat which did not involve any cruelty and suffering for the animal.

The other potential benefits are environmental although here, too, there is a difference of opinion.

One of the arguments of the proponents of cultured meat is that you require much less land and water and livestock to produce their product. You also reduce the damaging by-products of beef farming: the waste that the cows produce as well as all the farting they do.

It is estimated that, from a single tissue sample from a single cow, you could make 80,000 lab burgers.

The other potential benefit is for human health too. In recent years, a much more mechanised form of farming has spread around the world.

Many countries, including Scotland, have ramped up their food production to industrial scales and that can mean animals are packed in much closer together.

And what loves animals packed in close together? Viruses. The animals involved are probably not genetically diverse.

They are stressed which harms their immune system. They are very close to each other. And all of that means that if something nasty breaks out, it spreads quickly.

It is another argument which the proponents of cultured meat use to suggest we should be moving away from real meat as soon as we can.

However, cultured meat does not come without an environmental cost of its own.

The process obviously consumes energy and produces C02 – and the National Farmers’ Union says it is not necessarily better for the environment than the traditional methods of rearing beef. You may think: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

But a recent report by Oxford University conducted a comparison of the potential climate impacts of cultured meat and cattle production, and its conclusion was that cultured meat is not necessarily climatically superior to cattle and that it would depend on the specific production systems and whether the energy used could be decarbonised.

Meat in the middle?

Stuart Roberts, the deputy president of the NFU, says that the environmental downsides of meat production in Britain are also over-stated. Red meat production in this country, he says, is 2.5 times more carbon efficient than the global average. The British industry also has an ambition to become net zero by 2040.

“Our maritime climate means we grow grass really well,” he says. “Some 65% of our farmland is only suitable for this purpose and grazing livestock. If anywhere can produce high-quality, climate-friendly, nutritious red meat, it’s the UK.”

For Nestle, the latest company to enter the field, it is the environment that is apparently its primary motivation. The company says its work is being carried out at its Institute of Material Sciences in Lausanne and the hope is that the technologies being developed there can lead to more environmentally-friendly products.

The head of the institute, Reinhard Behringer, says the aim is a lower environmental impact.

“For many years,” he says, “we have been investing in our protein expertise and the development of proprietary technologies for plant-based meat alternatives, allowing us to continuously expand our wide range of products with a lower environmental impact.

“To complement these efforts, we’re also exploring technologies that could lead to animal-friendly alternatives that are nutritious, sustainable, and close to meat in terms of taste, flavour, and texture.

“We are excited to understand their potential.”

For vegans like Dr Butler, the research is heading in the right direction but they all say they won’t be trying it themselves, which leaves the tricky question of who exactly will eat a lab burger.

Not all vegans feel the same way – indeed, one of the most famous vegans of all, the philosopher and author of Animal Liberation Peter Singer, has said he would eat a lab burger.

“My view,” he wrote in The Guardian, “is being a vegetarian or vegan is not an end in itself but a means towards reducing both human and animal suffering, and leaving a habitable planet to future generations … if in vitro meat becomes commercially available, I will be pleased to try it.”

But if many vegans and veggies remain resistant, most of the market for lab meat would come from so-called flexitarians i.e. consumers who are concerned about the environment but still want to eat meat.

The global consultancy company AT Kearney has looked at the issue of lab meat and believes this is where the potential growth lies.

“For passionate meat-eaters,” said its report on the subject, “the predicted rise of cultured meat products means that they still get to enjoy the same diet they always have, but without the same environmental and animal cost attached.”

This may be how it goes, but other questions over the possible implications of lab meat linger. The first is the possible effect on farming.

Farmers point out that the lab meat factories are likely to be owned and operated by big corporations like Nestle rather than the network of family or small businesses that are more common in traditional farming.

Dish of the day

WOULD we be happy eating our lab-grown burgers if all those small businesses are no longer viable? And would customers be able to get over the “yuck” factor – the idea of their food being grown in a petri dish from cells?

There is also the question of whether moving to lab meat is the morally right thing to do longer term. The philosopher Ben Bramble, assistant professor of philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, says the idea of switching from real meat to lab meat may be good for the animals but is troubling because it does not require us to change out behaviour.

We did not think about the animals before and we do not think about the animals now – we just find a way to carry on as before and tuck into the burger, he suggests.

What may be the deciding factor in the end is price. It may have cost nearly quarter-of-a-million pounds to develop the burger that was unveiled in 2013, but as more companies become involved and invest in the project, so the prices will fall.

Earlier this month, some of the start-ups involved in the field suggested that lab burgers may be on sale within two years for a much more affordable £7.

A spokesman for Mosa Meat suggested the burgers might end up cheaper than conventional ones. Which creates an interesting vision of the future, doesn’t it? Most of us eating lab burgers because they’re morally better (and cheaper) and perhaps a smaller, richer elite continuing to enjoy animal flesh because it’s “real” or “exclusive”.

The report by AT Kearney suggested that this is the way we’re going and that, by 2040, more than half of the meat that’s eaten will not come from animals. Their conclusion was that “cultured meat will win in the long run”.

In laboratories around the world, the race is beginning.