First published in Fairfax newspapers 6/8/2013
Star Trek popularised it and on Monday a chef pan-fried it — the world’s first laboratory-grown burger has been cooked and tasted at an event in London.
Advocates said the ‘cultured meat’ could solve a range of environmental, human health and animal welfare issues attributed to the farming of livestock.
Research leader Professor Mark Post, a vascular physiologist at Maastricht University, said the demonstration was a proof-of-concept and cultured meat could realistically be on supermarket shelves within 10 to 20 years.
The development of the ‘world’s most expensive burger’, funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, recalls Star Trek’s vision of the ‘replicator’ — a machine that could grow meat using only the ingredients in air.
Sceptics have labelled Professor Post’s invention ”Frankenburger”. The public perception of the meat as the stuff of science fiction will be a challenge to its acceptance among consumers, said Professor Post.
”When you ask people in the streets are you going to eat this, it’s come from a lab? Probably the primary answer is: ‘No, are you out of your mind?”’ he said.
But, in a video shown at the demonstration, Mr Brin said: ”If what you are doing is not seen by some people as science fiction then it’s probably not transformative enough.”Food scientist and volunteer taster Hanni Rtzler said: ”There is quite some intense taste. It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy. But the consistency is perfect.
”But all three tasters, including Professor Post, noted a lack of fat that made the meat taste slightly unfamiliar and bland.Professor Post said the meat did not have fat cells, which normally provide much of meat’s juiciness and taste. He expected to eventually be able to produce meat that was identical to flesh from livestock.
A 2011 study at Oxford University found that cultured meat could dramatically reduce the energy, land and water use and greenhouse gas emissions involved in meat production.
The study’s author, Dr Hanna Tuomisto, said on Monday that: ”Livestock production contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 27% of the global water footprint and 33% of the global land use.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spokesperson Ben Williamson said: ”The meat industry, as it stands, causes enormous animal suffering and environmental damage.”
The use of antibiotics in farming has been blamed for an increase in treatment-resistant diseases affecting humans.
”There are basically three things that can happen going forward,” said Mr Brin. ”One is that we all become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s really likely. The second is we ignore the issues and that leads to continued environmental harm. And the third option is we do something new.”
The project cost €250,000 ($373,000). All of the funding came from Mr Brin, one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs.Using knowledge borrowed from medical science, Professor Post harmlessly removed stem cells from the shoulder of a cow and placed them in a petri dish where they self-replicated and created tiny strands of meat. The 140g patty was constructed by carefully knitting together 20,000 such strands.
Australia is one of the world’s largest meat producers. Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) estimate the national industry’s value at $16 billion.
MLA Marketing Manager Andrew Cox raised concerns over the potential impact on farmers.
”Currently in a country like Australia you have a lot of grasslands, which are extremely marginal for other uses, which we are using to turn something inedible into something edible. With many thousands of Australians being sustained in the production of essential foods,” he said.
Professor Post said there would ”always be farmers” and that the technology was not intended to entirely replace traditional meat production but to reduce our reliance on it.