Currently growing within the laboratories of Maastricht University in the Netherlands are 3,000 small strips of beef muscle tissue derived from cow stem cells in preparation for the creation of the first ever laboratory grown beef burger. The innovative research led by Dr Mark Post has been designed as a “proof of concept” to demonstrate that “with in-vitro methods, out of stem cells we can make a product that looks like and feels and hopefully tastes like meat”.

Set to cost around £210,000, it will be the most expensive burger ever made and rumours have emerged that it will be cooked by celebrity chef and culinary experimentalist, Heston Blumenthal. The taster of the burger will be a celebrity who is yet to be revealed.

The purpose of the research is to relieve a multitude of burdening problems that are associated with meat production, which is currently inefficient, cruel and unsustainable. The demand for meat is set to double over the next 40 years, and since we already use 70% of our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock, it won’t be long until farmers can’t keep up with our carnivorous appetite. Implementing dramatic changes in how we produce meat is essential – failure to do so will result in meat becoming a rare luxury.

In theory the new technology would be more sustainable: the number of burgers that could be made from a single cow would increase from 100 to 100 million, sparing billions of cattle farmed for food from suffering in slaughterhouses. Additionally it would alleviate environmental pressures associated with livestock production such as deforestation for grazing land, water use and 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

However the GM burger faces heavy opposition, nicknamed by critics as the “Frankenburger”. Protestors find the idea of a lab grown burger unsettling and unnatural. Many have voiced their concern over the unforeseeable health consequences that eating lab-grown meat may cause, whilst others are sceptical as to whether the synthetic meat will really taste and have the texture of meat.

It could be argued, however, that even current meat production is not “natural”. For generations animals have been artificially selected and injected with antibiotics and growth hormones. If this innovative research works lab grown meat could in fact be healthier; free of hormones, antibiotics and bacteria, and engineered to contain a lower fat content. The laboratory environment may also reduce the threat of swine and avian flu outbreaks associated with factory farming.

Since most of the technical obstacles of producing the laboratory-grown burger have already been overcome, Dr. Post believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation and estimates that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years. Only time will tell if this is the start of a culinary revolution.

Katherine Mayes

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