Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. — Ray Bradbury
Last month science fiction became science fact, with the successful unveiling, and consumption, of the first hamburger made from cultured beef.
Cultured, or in vitro, meat is not a new concept. In fact, writers as far back as the late 19th century have described a future that involves synthetic food production. It’s a concept that much science fiction presupposes if we are to both feed our planet’s growing population, while at the same time exploring the stars. And who wouldn’t want a Star Trek-style replicator in their kitchen?
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the science began to catch up with human imagination. Since then concepts such as tissue bioengineering and 3D printing have changed our views of what is achievable, and as of 2012 Food Safety News was reporting that more than 30 labs worldwide were working towards production of in vitro meat. Dr. Mark Post and his team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands were the first to successfully grow approximately 20,000 strips of cultured beef muscle tissue from cow stem cells that could then be combined to make one burger patty. According to the two food tasters, the result was a hamburger that although lacking somewhat in the flavour, fairly accurately mimicked the consistency, bite and taste of meat.
While there is still much to overcome in terms of the science and the production process itself – not to mention the reported $408,000 price tag – the prospect of lab-grown meat is enticing. Cultured meat could solve the ethical issue of raising livestock for consumption (scientists are divided over whether stem cell harvesting would need to continue, or if meat could be grown continually from the same sample); it could dramatically reduce the environmental affects of livestock farming, freeing more land for other agricultural purposes; and it could potentially offer a healthier, safer version of the meat we eat today. There’s no reason why cultured meat couldn’t be fortified with vitamins and minerals, or be customized to deliver specific nutrients and flavours.
While public perception of lab-grown meat is still untested, current consumer preferences lean toward “natural” foods and production methods, rather than products seen as having too many “man-made” properties. When it comes right down to it, will consumers buy cultured meat? And in a future with fewer food options, would “real” meat then become an indulgence for those who could afford it, with synthetic meats considered second-tier foods? There are also those who question the ethical and practical expense of producing synthetic meat worth, when we should instead be convincing consumers to focus on plant-based diets.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, 20 years from now it will be a whole different story as the food landscape continues to evolve, whether we like it or not.