Few could have been in doubt that the Dutch scientist succeeded in catching the attention of the world’s media. When Professor Mark Post stood on stage at a media centre in west London last month, he showed off meat grown in a laboratory and captivated the TV news and newspaper columns.
But what does his development of “cultured beef” mean for the food business, now and in future? The short answer is that the artificial hamburger (should we call it the “shamburger?”) could revolutionise meat eating across the industry. It could and should be cheaper, greener, and healthier than real meat, from real animals.
Of course, there is little prospect that McDonald’s or indeed any foodservice outlet will be serving up one of Professor Post’s burgers in the next two years.
But artificial meat may become commercially available in as little as “10 years, even earlier,” according to the bespectacled academic, whose achievement in growing an actual burger gives him a hefty slab of credibility.
Before looking at what artificial meat might mean, it’s worth recapping what exactly Professor Post’s chef cooked up in front of those TV journalists in London. Put simply, building on years of research by Dutch colleagues, he extracted cells from living cattle (harmlessly) and grew them into tens of thousands of muscle fibres in test tubes in a laboratory. The result was three 140g (5oz) patties coloured with beetroot juice to resemble real burgers. Two food writers pronounced the one fried at Hammersmith Studios on 5 August to be authentically meaty in texture, if a little dry.
Although it sounds wacky, artificial meat is already here – and it is expected to be an efficient solution to the enormous environmental and financial cost of real meat.
‘Traditional’ meat, as we should perhaps call it, is a real headache for policymakers. Livestock hogs 70% of all farmland, and the United Nation warns meat production will have to double by 2050, mainly to feed increased demand from a growing middle class in China and other developing nations.
It is an extraordinarily inefficient way of using vegetables and cereals to feed humans: every kilo requires between four and 10 kilos of plant-based feed compared with “cultured meat”, which uses only about two kilos (which Professor Post hopes will eventually be derived from fast-growing algae).
Environmentally, livestock belch out vast amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, and cause 18% of all climate change emissions.
If these trends continue, meat is likely to become increasingly expensive. Professor Post believes it will be the subject of an eco-tax, and will eventually become a “luxury” food out of the reach of all but the wealthiest diners.
What benefits then, might lab-grown meat bring, practically, to foodservice outlets?
Firstly, once it has been developed satisfactory, it is likely to be cheaper than cuts from pasture-fed animals. It can be grown in 1% of the space of the fields or buildings. While existing agricultural production centres are, by their nature, often away from centres of population, the smaller artificial meat labs or factories can be located in or on the outskirts of cities, dramatically reducing transport costs.
Growing meat in the lab also offers the prospect of ending, or much reducing, food poisoning. Easier screening in laboratories could do away with pathogens such as e.coli, salmonella and listeria, which cause expensive compliance regimes and embarrassing outbreaks of illness.
Artificial meat will also be versatile. For a start, scientists are confident that the technology used to create cultured beef will be applicable to any meat with similar cells, including chicken, pork, lamb, and even fish. But, more importantly, artificial meat can also be engineered for health.
Consumption of fatty foods, particularly artery-clogging mutton, beef and pork is responsible for much heart disease – and an estimated third of all human illness. Technicians can control the level of fat in cultured meat, to suit the health requirements of groups of diners.
Another marketable advantage is that, if the scientists hold true to their promise not to harm animals during its production, vegetarians will be able to eat it, opening up a whole new customer-base for steak houses, burger and fried chicken bars and others. There are signs that many who currently shun meat for ethical or environmental reasons would partake, since the pressure group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has offered a prize for cultured chicken meat, and many vegetarians already eat the faux meat protein Quorn.
What would customers think of a restaurant that put “cultured beef” on the menu? There is little research, but a study in Ireland suggests that, once briefed, many diners will not mind. Researchers funded by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture found that, initially, the public disliked the idea, deeming it to be “unnatural”. But when the benefits were explained, they were “receptive” to the idea of growing meat for specific medical or dietary needs, and liked the gain for animal welfare. They were even willing to pay more for in-vitro alternatives to factory-farmed chicken or fish. But the clincher was the quality of the meat. Teagasc, Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority, explained, “The suggestion that the taste and texture of in vitro meat products might be sub-optimal presented a potential ‘tipping point’ in consumer acceptance. This was particularly evident when in-vitro steak was discussed.”
Professor Post sounds as if he is not too far off meat that tastes acceptable. When they ate the “shamburger”, one of the two assembled food writers, Hanni Rützler, from Austria’s Future Food Studio, concluded: “It’s close to meat – it’s not that juicy but the consistency is perfect.”
Writing in the academic journal, The Microscope, two years before Post’s public demonstration, the biologist Brian J Ford predicted that once the world wakes up to the possibilities of artificial meat it will forget its place on the dinner table was ever in doubt, “A future generation… will be surprised at the time it took science to wake up to the realities. Cultured meat will prove to be as important in the future as bread, cheese and beer have been in the past.”