Grow your own food… in a tube?

Last Monday, the food science once again gave a dare to the food culture. The world’s first burger produced with a 140 gr of lab-grown meat and $330,000 of investments has been presented to the public and eaten by two food critics at a news conference in London. The project was led by a Dutch scientist from Maastricht University Professor Mark Post and backed up by a co-founder of Google Sergey Brin, major bankroller of the project, and New Harvest, a non-for-profit research organization.

meatSo what it is behind the tube steak? The science seems straightforward and the process painless: a small amount of stem cells is taken from a living animal and grown into strips of muscle tissue with the help of growth-stimulating chemicals. The end product could be used to produce meat destined for human consumption. The breakthrough has been met with enthusiasm on the part of animal welfare and environmentalist movements and is argued to offer solutions to a whole range of global problems. But let’s have a closer look at the pros and cons balance.

Advantages

Respect for environment

Lab grown meat promises to offer an environmentally friendly alternative to increasingly unsustainable industrial farm animal production. Significantly decreased energy uses, negligible amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and virtually no land requirements are among major benefits of meat cultivation.

Animal rights

Cruelty-free meat can put an end to the horrors of slaughterhouses and animal suffering while still letting meat-lovers enjoy their favorite steaks and burgers, guilt-free.

Safety

The tube-grown meat is argued to be safer due to the cultivation process being under scientists’ total control which is a particularly attractive point in the light of the recent horsemeat scandal.

Feeding the world

Lab-grown meat is another addition to the collection of the most unconventional and creative ways to tackle world hunger after UN’s recommendation to start farming and eating insects. Meat cultivation is hoped to offer a more effective and reliable way to both appease growing appetite for meat in the developed world and play a part in solving the world hunger problem by making more food available more cheaply. Critics, however, are fast to remind that there is enough food for everyone on the planet already, and the problem is that of its fair distribution, not the production.

Disadvantages

Taste

Even the researchers who developed the “schmeat”, as the tube meat has been dubbed, admit that its taste is far from that of natural meat. Food critics who had a chance to have a bite commented on the burger being somewhat dry and lacking fat and flavour. The only aspect the patty was complimented on was its texture with one of the tasters praising the patty for not “falling apart”. While it is already an achievement, consumers will probably not be too tempted to forego conventional meat in favour of the lab grown until the latter tastes and looks right. As long as blood and artificially grown fat have to be added to tube meat to enhance its appearance and flavor, the shcmeat will most probably remain far from making an appetizing menu entry.

Safety

Although cultivation is said to be a safer and better controlled process, concerns are raised about antibiotics that have to be added to meat to prevent it from rotting, as well as other chemicals needed to turn initially white muscle tissue into more meat-looking-like red substance.

Animal welfare

Yes, lab growing involves no slaughtering, but heaven on earth is probably not what awaits the animals which will be subjected to regular process of cell extraction if meat cultivation reaches commercial scales.

Public perception

While scientists can prove it is possible to create cultured meat, public perceptions of such a comestible and acceptance thereof are a different matter. In an article written for CNN the director of New Harvest Isha Datar applauds the benefits of a tube grown burger and compares meat cultivation with beer brewing. If for thousands of years, she argues, people have gladly consumed a drink which essentially is a biotech product – produced in a sterile environment with the help of living organisms – what prevents the same principle from being applied to the production of meat?  While I am not contesting the benefits of an animal-free burger, to me the difference between meat cultivation and beer brewing is obvious – brewing is the only method of beer production people have ever known, whereas beef once used to literally grow on the grass, in the fields and not in a lab (although it has to be admitted that the spread of CAFOs has significantly altered this nature-embedded view of meat raising).

Nutrition

I have found no mentions of how the high tech burger compares with natural meat in terms of its nutritional value, but I guess this is a valid and not a minor point in the debate over meat cultivation given our current obsession with healthy eating.

Meanwhile, a one million dollar award is currently being offered by an American animal rights organization PETA to the first scientist who will produce a commercially viable in vitro chicken meat by March 4, 2014. If the day when the tube meat will appear on a supermarket shelf is fast approaching, it is important to consider potential implications of turning it into a commercial product. My own fear is that if the cost of the cultivated meat will indeed be so low as to allow the poor to put a steak on the family dinner table every day, could it happen that conventional meat producers (which I would not expect to go out of business overnight and altogether) will start charging premiums for natural meat turning it into an exclusive product, an extravagance affordable to a narrow circle of elite thereby contributing to social differentiation of consumption?

Probably looking too far in the future, I am also curious to see how products made from cultivated meat will be labelled, whether consumers will be able to differentiate between burgers on the basis of scientific labs where they were produced and whether those labs will compete on the grounds of, let’s say, scientific reputation? Given researchers’ comments on the possibility to adjust the cultivation process and tweak the taste of the end product, there seems, indeed, to be a room for market competition. While these are all questions of the future, it is probably closer than we think.

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