Cruelty-free real beef burgers may be coming soon to a table near you.
A couple of years ago, scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands created what they called “cultured beef”, by using stem cells taken from a biopsy of a cow, without killing it, to grow muscle tissue, which is the main component of steak. The tissue grew in long strands and was not at all steak–like in shape or appearance, so it was formed into a hamburger patty. Since the lab-grown meat was made of primarily muscle protein and does not include the other proteins or fat that give beef its flavour, the burger’s taste was not expected to rival your local takeout. It was dry and a bit bland, but got favourable reviews from the testing judges as a good first try.
In February 2016, a team from Memphis Meats used cultured cow cells to create a meatball. This time, they added fat cells and the meatball tastes “like a meatball”. This is a huge step forward in creating a marketable cruelty-free “clean meat”. Memphis Meats says it hopes to be price competitive with regular meat in five years.
After reading numerous articles and comments, it was obvious to me that there is a great deal of misinformation and ignorance surrounding this meat. Many comments referred to lab grown meat as “unnatural” or “disgusting”, and there was much ridicule and fear-mongering, including one media site’s referral to a “Frankenburger”. It is unfortunate that such responses are so common, given the magnitude of the accomplishment.
Not Artificial Meat
It is often referred to as “artificial” meat, which is incorrect. It is real meat. It is not made from synthetic compounds or genetically modified in any way. It is just a collection of cow cells growing outside of a cow. Once the process is improved to include blood vessels and fats, it can be tailored to meet requirements, and may eventually be better than cow grown beef.
The possibilities for variations of new meat products will be virtually endless, and the process will not be limited to cow cells. It can be extended to pigs and chickens and to any other animal that is desired without harming any of them; birds, fish, reptiles, even endangered species. Somewhere, someone is sure to want a koala steak.
Eventually we may be able to grow steaks that are bigger than the original animals themselves. Perhaps all that running makes mouse meat quite tender. We can grow mouse roast and find out.
By controlling the amount and types of cells and ingredients we can make designer meat. We will be able to combine cells from different animals to make truly unique taste experiences, and add spices and flavourings to the meat as it is growing.
We can eliminate the unhealthiest cuts of meat from our diets since we will no longer need to grow an entire cow just to get a filet mignon. Every burger, sausage and meatball can be made from the most tender types of meat. The biggest losers may be pet dogs who will miss out when there are no more leftover bones from the dinner table. Then again, their dog food can also be made from choice beef and not the unmentionable cow parts that are used today.
We can make the meat itself healthier as well. We can substitute healthier fats for the ones found in regular meat, and possibly even lace the meat with vitamins, other nutrients, or even pharmaceuticals. How about having a burger that actually lowers your cholesterol?
Some are criticizing this exercise as a waste of money. The world doesn’t need more food, they argue, we have enough already. It’s just not being equitably distributed. Cultured beef is not, however, about making more food. It is about making food while causing less damage to the planet, to the animals, and to ourselves.
The environmental destruction caused by our current agricultural practices is mind-boggling. Almost 70% of all of the agricultural land on the planet is used to raise animals for meat. Rain forests are being cut down to create fields for grazing. Cattle in feedlots require seven kilograms of food to create one kilogram of beef. Over 30% of all arable land on earth is used to grow feed for livestock.
In the next few decades, some of the world’s prime agricultural land will be heavily damaged by climate change, reducing crop yields. The sites of current factory farms may be required for cultured beef labs, but by reducing or eliminating factory meat farming, we will free up land that is used to grow feedstock. Some of this can be converted to grow food crops for humans.
18% of all greenhouse gases are produced in the digestive systems of cows. Eliminating this source is the equivalent of taking all of the vehicles on the planet off the roads.
For many who support this technology, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the main goal is to eliminate the cruel and barbaric practices inherent in factory farming. Anyone who calls lab grown meat “disgusting” obviously has no clue about where their current burger comes from.
The public tasting of a boring burger could very well signify the most important development in human food production since our hunter gatherer ancestors first developed agriculture. If lab grown meat is successful, it would represent a shift in the means of production from highly inefficient and destructive farms to a controlled, cruelty free environment.
In a decade or two, the takeout containers from your favourite fast food joint may read:
“No cows were harmed in the making of this burger.”