August 5, 2013
World’s First Lab-Grown Burger Comes To The Dinner Table
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In a world's first, Prof. Mark Post of Maastricht University and colleagues are preparing to consume a lab-grown burger and the event will be shown live today. The team explains the burger, which will be grilled up like a regular ground beef burger, could help bring an end to the global food crisis due to the effects of climate change.
As the world's population continues to balloon toward 9 billion by mid-century, experts worry even an aggressive increase in livestock farming processes will not be enough to match the demand that will come with population growth. To this end, the UM team see "cultured beef" as a sustainable source of food that will not burden the environment and could be ready for the dinner table within a few decades.
"What we are going to attempt is important because I hope it will show Cultured Beef has the answers to major problems that the world faces," said Prof. Post, whose laboratory at Maastricht University in the Netherlands developed the processes behind cultured beef. "Our burger is made from muscle cells taken from a cow. We haven't altered them in any way. For it to succeed it has to look, feel and hopefully taste like the real thing."
The muscle cells are cultured in the lab where they are placed in a nutrient solution to stimulate muscle tissue growth. The tissue is grown by placing the cells in a cylindrical tube around a hub of gel. The cells then grow into small strands of meat; as many as 20,000 strands are needed to make a five-ounce burger.
But critics are not convinced lab-grown burgers are the way to go.
Prof. Tara Garnett, head of Oxford University's Food Policy Research Network, said technological solutions are not the answer to world hunger.
"We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry," she told BBC's Pallab Ghosh. "That's just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don't just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it."
While most research with stem cells has revolved around developing tissue that can be used in the medical field, Prof. Post views these cells as a food source.
And while the initial result of lab-grown meat is less than appetizing, the team is trying to make it look as authentic as possible. Helen Breewood, a researcher working with Prof. Post, told BBC adding certain ingredients to the burger, especially coloring, was necessary to make it look as natural as possible.
The cultured burger includes common ingredients to hopefully bring out the flavor. They added food products such as salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs to beef up the burger. The team then added red beet juice and saffron to bring out the burger's natural colors.
"If it doesn't look like normal meat, if it doesn't taste like normal meat, it's not... going to be a viable replacement," she told BBC.
Currently, the team can only make small pieces of meat, as larger pieces require artificial circulatory systems to distribute nutrients and oxygen. As well, the cultured beef is not cheap; it costs in the neighborhood of $325,000 (US) to produce just one five-ounce burger. Still, the team believes they are on the road to success.
Prof. Post said he expects the burger to not taste great, but it should be "good enough."
Two volunteers at UM will be leading the taste test.
Breewood noted to Ghosh that despite being a vegetarian, she would jump at the chance to taste the cultured beef product.
"A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughter house I think they would also find that repulsive," said Breewood, who finds meat production is a waste of natural resources.
"[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer,â€ animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement.
Prof. Post and colleagues further explained how cultured beef could be the answer to the world's food problem. The researchers note alternatives are needed to avoid using up too much of the world's resources as the population balloons and meat consumption follows suit.
The team said cultured meat production is as much as 60 percent more energy efficient and results in up to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventional livestock farming in Europe, according to a 2010 study conducted by Oxford University and University of Amsterdam.
Also, industrialized agriculture contributes massively to climate change, air pollution, land degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline, according to a 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The meat industry contributes about 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and this proportion is expected to grow as consumers in developing nations such as China and India continue to increase reliance on meat.
The World Health Organization recently reported annual meat production is expected to rise to 414 million US tons by 2030 from 240 million tons in 1999.
While Monday afternoon's taste test will be a world's first, Prof. Post doesn't expect a cultured beef product to be commercially viable for some time.
As well, it is still too early to know whether the public is ready to adopt cultured meat in place of their long-lived obsession with its conventional counterparts. But for vegetarians, industrialists and animal welfare activists, the concept seems like a surefire strategy.
Prof. Post's work on cultured beef began in 2008 while he was a professor of tissue engineering at Eindhoven University. Despite funding issues from the Dutch government, Prof. Post continued working with cultured meat through funding obtained from a private unnamed individual.
Today's taste test can be seen live at culturedbeef.net
Image Below: A cultured beef burger similar to one that will be consumed by volunteers at Maastricht University this afternoon. Credit: Maastricht University