So let’s dive straight into the world of the ‘mad professors’ who are turning science fiction into science fact – starting with the inventor of the first ever, headline-grabbing, off-the-scale expensive, cultured-meat burger.
London 2013 was the scene of this man’s showstopper – biting into his own homegrown, or rather ‘lab-grown’ burger in front of a select audience of journos, foodies and chefs. A $330,000 burger, made from meat grown in a petri dish using bovine stem cells. You need to grow 15,000,000,000 cells to make a whole burger, by the way. I guess he must have counted.
The man was Mark Post, who incidentally really is a professor. Previous to his burger-barnstormer, he’d taken to the stage in America, before hundreds of pig farmers and meat processors and without as much as a blink, told them what they were doing was causing undue animal suffering and environmental damage. Now that’s my kind of guy!
The Prof sees this as the future of meat: from a small number of donor animals (many billions fewer than currently exist to satisfy the world’s appetite), we can ultimately get all the burgers, chops, and chicken pieces desired, without harm to the cows, pigs, or chickens.
However bad the news gets about the impact of meat on health and on the environment, he’s certain it won’t stop people wanting to keep right on eating their burgers and steaks.
And the OECD agrees with him. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the demand for meat in North America will increase by 8 percent between 2011 and 2020, in Europe by 7 percent and in Asia by a whopping 56 percent.
The Prof does not have the petri dish all to himself. Just two months ago, the American company Memphis Meats fried up the first ever lab-made meatball, coming in at $18,000 per pound. A bit more expensive than IKEA’s, but still a bargain compared with Post’s burger. Apparently you can barely tell the difference between the new age meatball and the old school kind, though I’ll have to take their word for it.
Yet another company, Modern Meadow, has shuffled up next to them on the bandwagon, proffering another novel nibble, lab-grown “steak-chips”. And Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society US was there to try it out. “My mouth was not exactly watering as I took my first bite of ‘meat’ in nearly three decades,” he said. “But I did it with a clean conscience. In fact, not a single animal died or suffered for my palate or plate,” since the steak-chips were also, of course, grown in a petri dish. He added, “If you think that process sounds strange, you’ve never visited a slaughterhouse.” He’s clearly hopeful about the role of this new technology in the future of the Humane Economy.
Modern Meadow has another trick up its sleeve – it grows leather. Though in this super high tech world, we should be saying, ‘biofabricates’. You grow lettuce. You biofabricate steak-chips and leather.
Last, but by no means least, is pioneering New Harvest, which says of itself,
We strategically fund and conduct open, public, collaborative research that reinvents the way we make animal products – without animals
New Harvest actually beat the lot of them to the start line. It was seeing inside a poultry farm for the first time back in 2004, that gave Jason Matheny his lightbulb moment. He saw
“Tens of thousands of chickens in a metal warehouse, doped with drugs, living in their own manure and being bred for production traits [eg fast weight gain] that caused them to be immune-compromised”
The horrible experience made him think there had to be a better way to meet the exponentially growing global demand for meat. Once back in the USA he teamed up with three NASA scientists to explore the possibilities of cultured meat production on a large scale.
New Harvest nine years on: Enter Isha Datar, a formidable entrepreneur whose acquaintance we made in This is the Future – Post-Animal Food. She took up the post of Executive Director in 2013. In next to no time she helped bring to birth Muufri, and Clara Foods to produce animal-free milk, and animal-free egg white respectively.
These are the hi-tech players devising ingenious new ways to let us ‘have our cake and eat it’ – meat and dairy eaters can go on enjoying the food they love with the assurance that no animals were harmed in the making. And there are many other positives.
Pros – Lab-grown meat and dairy could
- cut down the land required by 99%
- cut down the water used by 90%
- cut the greenhouse gas emissions compared with livestock farming as it is now
- practically eliminate pollution and soil degradation
- obviate the use of antibiotics and prevent the associated growth of resistant bacteria
- eliminate the use of growth hormones regularly given to cattle, whose adverse effects in humans can be developmental, neurobiological, genotoxic and carcinogenic
Cons – It’s not yet entirely clear
- how energy use would compare
- what the health implications would be, though present indications are very positive
- whether the process can be successfully scaled up to bring the price of a burger down to a level where it doesn’t bankrupt the buyer!
The enthusiasts remain optimistic, but it has to be said that not all animal advocacy organisations and individuals, vegans and vegetarians are enthralled by this remarkable innovation, even if it brings with it the promise of a huge, and hugely welcome, diminution in animal suffering and environmental damage. It may be a fairly painless procedure to extract stem-cells from an animal, but the process still involves exploitation, and for now at least, the serum used to grow the stem cells is also obtained from animals.
But that’s enough of animal stem cells – there’s a whole other hi-tech sector not to be overlooked.
The hi-tech plant based food companies (which featured briefly in The Bright New Age of the Humane Economy) seem to be the poor relations in this technological race to the future. They just don’t seem to have the same headline-grabbing, sensational futuristic pzazz for the general public, although they are the real miracle-workers – forget turning water into wine, they can turn plants into ‘meat’, and this is how it’s done
Taste-test opinions on plant ‘meat’ are mostly positive. The NY Times food writer Mark Bittman for one couldn’t distinguish Beyond Meat’s plant ‘chicken’ from the real thing, and neither could Bill Gates. Mr Gates is enthusiastic about plant based meat’s potential, believing this the best way forward for the Future of Food, and to prove it he’s put his money where his mouth is.
Despite lacking the fanfares of publicity enjoyed by their stem cell counterparts, Beyond Meat and other plant based ‘animal’ product companies have stolen a march on the former, because while stem cell meat has yet to escape the confines of the labs, plant based meat is already on the shelves. Americans can load Beyond Meat’s Beast burgers, meatballs and chicken strips straight into their Walmart trolleys.
Hang on a minute. Did we say poor relations? Did we say lacking fanfares? Did we say no pzazz? Well that’s all changed as of now, because the brand new Beyond Burger has just hit the shelves and is causing a sensation.
And you won’t find it in the ‘Free From’ aisle either. This meaty feast is sold right from the meat counter.
So that’s animal stem cell cultured meat, and plant-based cultured meat. Both innovations are based on the assumption that people like meat and will want to keep on eating it in some form or another, so we need to find ways to make it more sustainable. Now let’s take a look at option number 3 for a sustainable future of food.
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation has come up with an entirely different solution to the sustainability problem in a world getting hotter and drier. And it’s about as unglamorous as it gets. It’s so low tech it’s positively history. Their answer? Beans. Well, actually legumes, which of course includes all kinds of peas, beans and lentils – foods that humans have eaten for centuries.
Thanks to their high levels of protein, fiber, and other nutrients; low requirements for water and other agricultural inputs; long shelf life; and cultural and culinary relevance around the globe, pulses have been deemed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation:
“An uncompromising enemy of hunger and malnutrition worldwide and a genuine superfood for the future.”
Sadly, “The Year of Pulses”, the FAO’s chosen title for their year-long campaign to promote the humble vegetable, is hardly going to scatter stardust on the lowly bean, or make hearts beat faster. Especially not in affluent countries where pulses are seen (not by vegans of course!) as the boring staple of the boring vegan diet, or the cheap food of those who can’t afford meat. Definitely no pzazz around here, even though legumes are the saints of the plant world – they bestow goodness on the soil they are growing in. They have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules, and so they actually fertilise rather than deplete the soil.
So, doesn’t the UNFAO have the best idea for the future of food, this superfood accessible to everyone? And aren’t the hi-tech solutions, whether stem cell-based or plant-based, a first world luxury? Regardless, the lowly legume may need some mighty PR – your everyday bean burger is hardly going to make a splash all over the front pages like that first cultured meat burger did in 2013.
Let’s just take one last peek into Professor Post’s lab. Whatever we or his critics might think, he remains passionate about his project. His imagination runs ahead of him with bizarre visions: extracting stem cells from a rhino to make a rhino-burger; or from a giraffe or rabbit for more novel ‘delicacies’. And he seriously expects to see the day when we will all have in our kitchen, as standard, right alongside our kettle and toaster, a table-top meat grower of our very own.
Did I hear someone say ‘mad professor’?
What do you think? Which of these options is the future of food?
Click here for more on how lab meat shapes up healthwise.
Quartz for Prof Post’s work
Click here For everything you need to know about cow-less milk and the vegans who are making it. Very interesting it is too.
MFA Blog on the Beyond Burger
Desmoines Register exercising a note of caution on the future of stem cell cultured meat
Click here if you are interested in signing up for New Harvest’s Conference on Cellular Agriculture
It seems that Prof Post’s cultured meat is very far from cruelty-free. See Bite Size Vegan
6th April 2017 – Prof Post to give keynote lecture on “scientific hurdles to producing clean meat on a large scale” on the Modern Agriculture Foundation’s “The Path to Commercialization” conference in Israel May 7th. Source Clean Meat Collaboration – The Good Food Institute