Would you eat beef grown in a petri dish? It may sound unappetizing, but when tasters bit into the world's first lab-grown hamburger at a London press conference on Monday, they declared it "close to meat."
To learn more about cultured beef, we spoke via email with Isha Datar, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research group focused on alternatives to conventional meat production.
Today's taste test of the world's first lab-grown burger is attracting a lot of attention. Many people might wonder: What's the point of growing meat in a lab? Can't we just breed more beef cattle?
We actually can't. There is presently a global herd of 60 billion land animals for 7 billion people, and 70 percent of agricultural land and 8 percent of the global water supply is already devoted to livestock production. With the global herd in 2050 projected to be 100 billion land animals for 10 billion people, we just don't have the resources to maintain more animals. And livestock produce anywhere from 18 to 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Meat consumption is growing too fast, and we need to come up with several solutions for mitigating the risk to sustainability. In fact, current production is already unsustainable.
Also, our current factory farming methods bring about many opportunities to create widespread disease. Epidemic viruses are almost all from livestock farming (swine flu, avian flu), and widespread bacterial contamination opportunities make meat recalls an everyday occurrence. More animals means more risk to our population.
The burger in today's news was created by Maastricht University's Mark Post from the cultured muscle cells of living cows. Other scientists want to engineer meat from plant-based materials. What do you think is the best approach?
What is ideal is expanding the meat portfolio to include many different things: plant-based alternatives, cultured products, and everything in between. Even sustainably raised meat (grass fed, on non-farmable land) should be part of this. So in our future we will have a range of items, at a range of price points, that can adequately address demand while being more sustainable. Ultimately I would say a plant-based diet (and therefore plant-based alternatives) would be the ideal situation, but we don't expect the population to widely go vegetarian any time soon.
This message is important, though, and cultured meat is meant to complement the vegetarian effort. There are many other protein approaches; mycoprotein (Quorn) is one option, as is eating insects. These are much more effective ways to produce protein than through raising whole animals. Insects have been eaten by many people around the world for centuries, but cultural differences are holding it back from being a significant alternative in major meat-eating countries in the Western world.
A chef fries up the world's first lab-grown beef burger in London for two taste-testing volunteers.
Photograph by David Parry, Reuters
How long might it be before lab-grown meat is available to the general public?
It all depends on funding. The more money, the faster it becomes available. The things that hold this technology back are: 1) creating a medium for the cells to grow in that is totally plant-based and sustainable, because at present it is not, and 2) making [lab-grown meat] affordably and quickly. But these are engineering problems. They are not problems of difficult science.
The implications of a publicly funded food technology are immense. It means open-source [not patented] food. It means cultured meat production could resemble beer production or cheese production.
Have you ever eaten lab-grown meat?
I haven't, and I wish I could have had a taste, especially since so many reporters ask me that question! I would eat it, definitely.