The ethical quandary over whether or not to eat meat may soon disappear.

A number of startups say they're close to bringing  lab-grown meat to a restaurant near you, the Wall Street Journal reports. The companies are taking cow, pig, and chicken cells that can be collected without slaughtering the animals, and developing them in steel tanks where oxygen and nutrients help them grow.

San Francisco-based  Memphis Meats, Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow, and Netherlands-based Mosa Meat are three startups racing to bring "cultured meat" to consumers, WSJ reports. So what does slaughter-free cow taste like?

In 2013, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and physiologist Mark Post helped fund a taste test featuring ground beef grown in a lab. The experiment yielded mixed reviews, but Post, one of Mosa Meats's co-founders, was satisfied with the result enough to continue working. 

One of the driving factors behind these projects is the shared belief among scientists that conventional meat production can not keep up with demand from the growing world population.

"The meat industry knows their products aren't sustainable," Memphis Meats chief executive Uma Valeti told the WSJ. "We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured."

Among the challenges facing Memphis Meats is bringing down the cost of producing its product. It currently costs the company $18,000 to make a pound of ground beef, compared to just $4 per pound the conventional way, the WSJ reports.

Getting the cost down to a competitive figure may sound like a daunting task for an entrepreneur, but it's worth noting that by just about every other measure, lab-grown meat is much more efficient. It takes Memphis Meats three calories of animal feed to produce one calorie of beef, compared to 23 calories of feed for conventional meat production, Valeti told Fortune. Memphis Meats also claims it uses 90 percent less water and land to produce lab-grown meat and 50 percent less energy. According to the WSJ, this month the company plans to announce a $2 million funding round from investors, including SOSV LLC and New Crop Capital, and expects to be selling its meat in three to four years.

But will consumers be comfortable making the switch to lab-grown meat? Valeti told Fortune he thinks the answer is a resounding yes. "I have not walked out of a room after showing our science without having an incredibly supportive, jaw-dropping response," he said. 

Published on: Feb 2, 2016