Test-tube burger nearly ready for cooking

Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands have made a breakthrough in the hunt for artificial meat. ‘Frankenburgers’ could revolutionise the way we make our food.

Stretched out in petri dishes in a Dutch lab, the world’s strangest burger is – for want of a better expression – doing its exercises. Hundreds of thin strips of muscle quiver on their velcro frames, as tiny electrical currents shock them into tensing and relaxing – essential if they are to take on the texture of real animal meat. By Autumn, scientists at a Vancouver conference have been told, these strips will finally be ready to eat.

The plan, said lead researcher Dr Mark Post, is to grind up the lab-grown flesh with lumps of fat to make a simple beef burger. The unusual delicacy will be cooked by ‘molecular gastronomist‘ Heston Blumenthal, and shared carefully between a handful of lucky diners, chosen by the mystery millionaire behind the project.

And this burger will not have come cheap. The cost to produce, per portion, is more than £200,000. The flavour, meanwhile? ‘Bland’, says Dr Post.

Why pay so much for a burger? And if it tastes so bad, why eat it?

Because this will be the first genuine beef burger in history where the beef did not cost the life of a single cow.

In vitro meat, as it is called, is produced by persuading living cells from a cow to grow outside that cow’s body in a sort of high energy nutrient soup. Under precisely the right conditions, stem cells from muscle will continue to grow and multiply as normal, gradually evolving into proper muscle tissue even outside the animal’s body.

And although this prototype burger will be extraordinarily expensive, the costs of producing such meat could quickly come down. Within the next five or ten years, predicts Dr Post, man-made meat could be cheap enough to compete with the real thing.

That is the prospect that has scientists and environmentalists so excited. Cheap artificial meat could satisfy mankind’s carnivorous tastes at a hugely reduced cost in CO2 emissions, grain consumption, land use and animal suffering, while providing improved nutrition and less fat. The social and environmental benefits could be enormous.

Unnatural eating

That is, of course, if people can be persuaded to eat it. Most ordinary meat-eaters, when questioned, have said that artificial meat sounds ‘disgusting’ and ‘unnatural’. You can’t trust a burger grown in a lab, they complain.

If you want ‘disgusting’ and ‘unnatural’, reply artificial meat’s defenders, look no further than a modern factory farm, where thousands of sick, inbred pigs, chickens or cows live in conditions of unimaginable horror – genetic freaks kept alive by the diet of hormones, chemicals and antibiotics which they are force fed. If man-made meat can reduce the scale of that suffering, it is argued, then Dr Post’s £200,000 burger will have been more than worth the price.

You Decide

  1. Would you eat Dr Post’s test-tube hamburger?
  2. Is it okay to eat meat from factory farms?

Activities

  1. Mark Post says you could, in theory, make test-tube meat from the cells of any animal, from piranhas to polar bears. Class vote: which unusual species would make the best burger?
  2. Research project: in pairs, find out as much as possible about the real cost of an ordinary beef burger. You might look at things like land use, CO2 emissions, oil use, water cost, pollution from fertiliser etc. Present your findings in an infographic.

Some People Say...

“Humans eating animals is natural and right.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will I really have to eat test-tube meat?
Quite possibly, yes. Earth’s population will grow by another two billion people in the next 40 or so years. That’s a lot more mouths to feed, and a lot of those people will want to eat meat.
So? Breed more cows.
The problem with that is that feeding a cow takes a huge amount of grain. In terms of energy, the grain used to produce one hamburger’s worth of meat could feed two whole families if it was used to make bread instead. More meat means more grain, and with nine billion people, the world simply won’t have enough fertile land to cope – unless we turn to more radical solutions.

Word Watch

Molecular gastronomist
Molecular gastronomists are chefs who take an unconventional and scientific approach to cooking. Heston Blumenthal is famous for such dishes as egg and bacon ice cream and snail porridge.
In vitro
In Latin, in vitro simply means ‘in glass’, i.e. in a test tube or petri dish.
Stem cells
Stem cells are cells that have not yet taken on a specific function within the body, like muscle or bone or nerve. They multiply easily and rapidly, whereas fully developed muscle cells do not.
Carnivorous tastes
Biologically speaking, humans are omnivores: able to eat both meat and vegetables depending on what is available. Meat, which is high in energy and protein, would have been a highly valued but relatively uncommon item in early human diets.
Factory farm
A factory farm is a farm where modern industrial principles have been applied to the business of producing meat. Animals are selectively bred to have huge muscles and kept in cramped conditions. They need a constant diet of antibiotics in order to stay disease free.

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