Special report: 'In vitro' beef - it's the meat of the future
Asked the cost of a regular beefburger, you might guess around £3... with fries. But, next week, a select group will be fed a £250,000 patty. What's the difference? This one was grown in a laboratory – from a cow's stem cells
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 28 July 2013
A week tomorrow, at an exclusive west London venue, the most expensive beefburger in history will be nervously cooked and served before an invited audience. Costing somewhere in the region of £250,000, the 5oz burger will be composed of synthetic meat, grown in a laboratory from the stem cells of a slaughtered cow.
The scientist behind the "in vitro" burger believes synthetic meat could help to save the world from the growing consumer demand for beef, lamb, pork and chicken. The future appetite for beef alone, for instance, could easily lead to the conversion of much of the world's remaining forests to barren, manicured pastures by the end of this century.
The precious patty will be made of some 3,000 strips of artificial beef, each the size of a rice grain, grown from bovine stem cells cultured in the laboratory. Scientists believe the public demonstration will be "proof of principle", possibly leading to artificial meat being sold in supermarkets within five to 10 years.
Stem cells taken from just one animal could, in theory, be used to make a million times more meat than could be butchered from a single beef carcass. The reduction in the need for land, water and feed, as well as the decrease in greenhouse gases and other environmental pollutants, would change the environmental footprint of meat eating.
Artificial meat could make a carnivorous diet more acceptable to the green movement as well as to vegetarians opposed to livestock farming on animal-welfare grounds. Animal-rights organisations have already given their qualified approval to the idea, and some vegetarians have said they would be happy to eat it given its semi-detached status from the real thing.
Next month's culinary demonstration is the culmination of years of work by Mark Post, a medical physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His research into synthetic meat has been funded by a wealthy anonymous backer who, according to one source, may reveal his identify publicly by volunteering to be the first to taste the test-tube burger.
The public relations firm overseeing next week's cooking experiment said that Professor Post was unavailable for comment. However, last year he described the rationale for the work when The Independent on Sunday interviewed him at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver.
"Eventually, my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals which you keep in stock in the world. You basically kill animals and take all the stem cells from them, so you would still need animals for this technology," Professor Post said.
"Right now, we are using 70 per cent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock. You are going to need alternatives. If we don't do anything, meat will become a luxury food and will become very expensive," he said.
Carnivorism is a huge global industry, producing some 228 million tonnes of meat each year – the retail value of beef in the United States alone is $74bn (£50bn). By 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world will be eating twice as much meat as we eat now, primarily driven by the increased demand from a growing middle class in China and other developing nations.
Each Briton, on average, eats about 85kg of meat a year, which roughly translates into 33 chickens, one pig, three-quarters of a sheep and a fifth of a cow. This kind of appetite accounts for why some 30 per cent of ice-free land in the world is used for growing food for animal livestock while just 4 per cent is used for crops destined for human consumption.
The essential problem with meat is that it is a highly inefficient method of converting plant material into human food. Every kilo of meat requires between four and 10 kilos of plant-based feed, and the oil-based chemicals used to grow it, whereas cultured meat uses only about two kilos of feed, which Professor Post hopes will eventually be nutrients derived from fast-growing algae.
"It comes down to the fact that animals are very inefficient at converting vegetable protein into animal protein. This helps drive up the cost of meat," he said.
"Livestock also contributes a lot to greenhouse gas emissions, more so than our entire transport system. Livestock produces 39 per cent of global methane, 5 per cent of the CO2 and 40 per cent of the nitrous oxide. Eventually, we will have an 'eco-tax' on meat," he added.
One assessment, published in 2011 by scientists from Oxford University, estimated that cultured meat uses far less energy than most other forms, apart from chicken, and some 45 per cent less energy than beef, the most environmentally destructive meat.
They also found that synthetic meat needs 99 per cent less land than livestock, between 82 and 96 per cent less water, and produces between 78 and 95 per cent less greenhouse gas. In terms of relative environmental damage, there was no contest.
Yet there are still formidable technical problems in turning artificial meat into a desirable, and affordable, consumer product. The first of these is that real meat is composed of a variety of different cells, not just the meaty fibres made by the myosatellite stem cells – which normally repair damaged muscles – used in Professor Post's process.
Professor Post said that it is possible to add fatty tissue to the fibres to make them more palatable, as well as other nutrients to make the synthetic meat as nutritious as real meat, and possibly even healthier by reducing the saturated fats.
Minced meat or filling for sausages should be easier to make than a steak, but the use of biodegradable "scaffolding" and some kind of artificial blood vessels to deliver oxygen to a culture medium could overcome this physical limitation on the overall size of the finished product.
The Food Standards Agency said that before going on sale, artificial meat would need regulatory approval. The manufacturers would have to prove that all the necessary safety tests had been carried out, a spokeswoman said.
"In vitro or cultured meat is not yet commercially viable, but the technology used to produce cultured meat could be advanced enough for trials to take place. Any novel food, or food produced using a novel production process, must undergo a stringent and independent safety assessment before it is placed on the market," she said.
"Anyone seeking approval of an in vitro meat product would have to provide a dossier of evidence to show that the product is safe, nutritionally equivalent to existing meat products, and will not mislead the consumer. This would be evaluated under the EU regulation for novel foods, prior to a decision on authorisation. There have been no such applications to date," she said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which runs a scheme offering a prize of $1m (£660,000) for the first person or organisation to produce artificial chicken meat, said that cultured meat would be ethically acceptable if it meant less slaughtering.
"We do support lab-grown meat if it means fewer animals are eaten. Anything that reduces the suffering of animals would be welcome," said Ben Williamson, a Peta spokesman.
However, apart from the technical, regulatory and commercial problems of bringing artificial meat to market, the big question is whether the public will stomach eating something that started out as a pulsating pap of pink tissue in a factory fermenter.
Then there is the issue of taste. Could a burger made from artificial meat fibres and synthetic fat ever match up to a patty made from prime beef? In just over a week's time, whoever gets to eat the world's most expensive burger may be closer to knowing the answer.
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