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Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London August 5, 2013. The in-vitro burger, cultured from cattle stem cells, the first example of what its creator says could provide an answer to global food shortages and help combat climate change, was fried in a pan and tasted by two volunteers. The burger is the result of years of research by Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht, who is working to show how meat grown in petri dishes might one day be a true alternative to meat from livestock.The meat in the burger has been made by knitting together around 20,000 strands of protein that has been cultured from cattle stem cells in Post's lab. REUTERS/David Parry/pool (BRITAIN - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT FOOD SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNSPOOL/Reuters

Transformative social change can sometimes spring from unexpected quarters. What if the solution to one of humankind's most pressing food challenges – our mounting appetite for animal protein – lies in a test tube?

In 2013, science gave us the first synthetic hamburger. It cost a mere $350,000 and had a taste many described as, well, unappetizing. In the intervening years, the product has become more refined and a patty will now set you back about $15; still not cheap, but getting there.

Biotechnology and food science firms have also succeeded in developing lab-grown milk and egg whites, among other things. They could be available for sale in a decade or so.

All of this is a big deal on several different levels. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the planet's annual consumption of meat will grow 10 per cent between now and 2030; by then it is forecast to reach 45.3 kilograms per person, or double what it was in the 1970s.

That kind of increasing consumption may not be sustainable. The world's livestock herds emit billions of tonnes annually of greenhouse gases, while consuming vast amounts of feed and land. Deforestation for pasture land and the transportation of food are also major sources of emissions.

The rush to feed a hungry planet – a massively successful effort over the past half-century – resulted in many leaps in food technology and changes in techniques of animal husbandry. However, among the costs has been greater cruelty to animals. Laboratory meat – no animal required – promises to be less morally fraught.

It has its critics, who highlight the energy required to produce it. Even if the planet switched to a vegetarian diet overnight, we'll still have billions to feed, and we'll still need industrial-scale agriculture. But it's possible that the protein factories won't occupy millions of acres of arable land or require billions of litres of water and fertilizer and the razing of forests.

As with most things we put in our bodies, there will need to be safeguards, studies and clinical tests into the possible downsides of meatless meat. Scientific advances often come with dangers, and our eyes have to remain open to them. But the future is also a place filled with promise.