Steak of the art stuff?

Science 2013-08-13

Last week, the world’s first ‘test-tube burger’ was unveiled in London. The event was launched after decades of research into the technology by Dutch scientist Mark Post, and investment by Google co-founder Sergei Brin. 20,000 muscle fibers of meat were cultured in a petri-dish from a few cow’s stem cells, which is deemed by Post as the future of food technology. With the environmental toll of factory farming, given cows each release up to 500 gallons of methane a day, and the world food crisis, it is understandable why Post’s claims stirred excitement. The actual burger, served to food scientist Hanni Rutzler and journalist and author Josh Schonowald, simulated a less enthusiastic response, the best comment being ‘it tastes close to meat’.


The 5 ounce patty of ‘cultured beef’ was developed by removing tissue from a cow using a syringe, from which stem cells were obtained and used to grow muscle cells. Not entirely cruelty-free, these were grown in a medium with antibiotics and a mixture of nutrient and vitamins from fetal bovine serum, a component of cow’s blood. Although research engineers are currently trying to develop alternatives to fetal bovine serum, it remains a vital constituent of the lab-grown burger. The verdict? ‘The bite tastes like a conventional burger’ but the meat tasted like ‘an animal-protein cake’. Ultimately, the taste and texture decided the success of the burger, and its tepid response was due to the absence of fat.


After the major hurdle of how to mix in fat with the muscle, scaling down the technology costs to mass-market prices will be the next problem. It will be a long time until the average consumer gets their hands on what is currently the most expensive burger in the world at $330,000. The general response to this burger? Well unfortunately science can’t address the main perception that this lab-grown meat is gross.


However, changing our perceptions of food may be the solution. As populations grow there is a greater demand for meat that is not sustainable, with the UN forecasting that world meat demand will double by 2050, largely due to increased demand from growing middle class in China and other developing regions. However the question is not whether there is enough food, but how we use our agricultural resources, and to what cost to our health and the environment. There is currently enough food in the world to feed every adult 2000+ calories per day. Despite this, due to a complicated mix of poor land use, natural disasters and poverty, 12.5% of the world are deemed ‘hungry’.


Although this scientific innovation brings attention to the issue, it isn’t the answer. Will man ever outgrow its taste for flesh? Our future may depend on it. Only by changing our perceptions of food, and concentrating on sustainable agriculture can the environmental food crisis can be tackled.


Image source: Sky news