Frankenburger? Tuck in
Lab-grown burgers are a smart idea, whatever eco-minded food snobs might say.
Depending on who you talk to, on Monday we witnessed the public launch in London of the greatest leap forward yet in ‘cruelty-free’ meat or a demonstration of a tasteless ‘frankenburger’. In truth, cultured meat, produced in labs, is a fascinating and potentially extremely useful technology, yes, and it is not a threat to our health and environment by meddling scientists. Nor, however, is it a panacea for feeding the world.
In London, researchers from Maastricht University, led by Professor Mark Post, provided a burger made from small strips of lab-cultured beef for tasting by two critics. ‘It’s an intense taste, close to meat but not as juicy’, said nutrition researcher Hanni Rützler. ‘Perfect consistency, but I miss salt and pepper.’ The cultured meat is lacking in both fat and bone tissue that would normally provide much of the flavour of beef, but Post and his colleagues are working on fixing that.
The Maastricht team is not alone in trying to produce meat without farming animals. A team at another Dutch university, Utrecht, is attempting to use embyronic stem cells to produce meat, while two groups in the US are trying different methods for growing meat in the lab.
There has been inevitable negative reaction from some quarters. Food writer Joanna Blythman, the go-to woman for prejudicial rants about modern food, thinks the claims about cultured meat are overcooked. ‘At the very time there is mounting public concern about the risks of ultra-commercialised fake foods, as reflected in the recent horsemeat scandal, this Dutch offering is the ultimate in dodgy produce. It bears no more relationship to real meat than Perspex does to real glass, or nylon does to cotton. At least the notorious supermarket horse-burgers actually came from an animal.’
On the other hand, many environmentalists see real potential in cultured meat. By cutting out the need to produce animals – which may generate meat but also require lots of food and energy, and produce both waste and greenhouse gases – many greens see cultured meat as a way of reducing the eco-impact of meat production. In this regard, however, the green proponents of culture meat have been hoist with their own petard. Blythman happily makes the connection between cultured meat and the GM food panic: ‘GM technology has threatened animal health — for example, rats fed GM tomatoes have developed stomach lesions, as have pigs reared on GM feeds – contaminated other crops and achieved far lower yields than the propagandists suggested. It will be the same story with this new Frankenburger.’
Yet before we all get too excited, there are plenty of problems to solve. Monday’s demonstration was essentially a publicity stunt to help raise the millions required for the next stages in the development of the product. Post reckons it will be 10 to 20 years before it is commercially viable. Moreover, producing a burger-like product won’t necessarily help with the problem of meat production if we still need to farm those cows, pigs and chickens to produce the more valuable cuts of meat like steak, bacon and chicken breasts. It will be decades before we can contemplate creating the equivalent of a tasty chateaubriand from lab-produced gloop.
It’s also pretty depressing that this new technology, which seems to be a fantastic application of stem-cell techniques, has to be justified in such miserabilist terms like ‘saving the planet’, protecting animals from greedy humans, or averting some mythical Malthusian apocalypse. We can already, as some critics have noted, feed the world. We don’t need cultured meat to feed the hungry – for that, we need to tackle food distribution, waste and, above all, poverty. There is no ethical problem with eating animals, and those animals could be farmed in more efficient ways, too.
What cultured meat offers is another method of producing food, which hopefully will eventually allow greater control and efficiency in food production. It may be that these techniques produce new kinds of food. After all, why merely try to replicate the meat we already have? As some have noted, we could in time produce ‘meat’ using stem cells from species that would be impractical to farm at present. Gorilla burger, anyone?
Let’s hope that governments and companies are prepared to stump up the necessary funding to take the various approaches to cultured-meat production to the next level. Even better, let’s make mincemeat out of the anti-human outlook of environmentalists and animal-rights campaigners.
Rob Lyons is commissioning editor at spiked.