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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Travel
travel
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an enthusias...

Maths Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an enthusiastic Maths Tea...

English Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a dynamic En...

SAP Data Migration Lead

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Experienced Lead SAP Data Manager Requir...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform