THE FUTURE OF THE HAMBURGER
During the 20th century, synthetic meat was a major goal for food scientists concerned about global food production. Well, the future is here, and lab-grown burgers could find their way from the test tube to supermarket freezer within the decade.
Vegetarians have long found alternatives to meat burgers. Hardly a supermarket doesn’t stock vegetarian burgers, and options continue to diversify. But what about burger-loving carnivores? What does the future hold for them? The answer may well be in stem-cell technology, i.e., meat produced from stem-cells. The first such burger has already been created and tested. No animals were harmed in cultivating the not quite whopping 4-oz. burger, and it only took six weeks and $330,000. Why bother? We’ll get to that. First, how do you grow a meat burger without killing a cow?
A test-tube burger starts with a small sample of muscle tissue separated into individual cells and placed in a nutrient solution. There they are nurtured to allow multiplication, creating muscle tissue separately from the source animal. The cells naturally merge and grow, creating tissue strands. A single strand can multiply to trillions of new strands, which are layered together to replicate meat tissue. It takes about 15,000 strands to make a four-oz. burger patty. Add a little butter and sunflower oil, and voila! Tested by the Future Food Studio at a lavish event in London, the world's first such and most expensive burger was described as noticeably lacking in fat and meaty texture, but relatively palatable. The $330,000 bill was picked up by Google cofounder Serey Brin, an advocate of animal welfare. That price is bound to come down for a number of reasons.
Stem-cell meat production, or “cultured meat,” represents an ecological and sustainable alternative to livestock production. Right now 70% of all agricultural land (30% of the earth’s surface) is being used for livestock production. Cultured beef could significantly reduce the need for agricultural land, freeing up more space to grow crops. It would help remedy ethical issues of animal treatment, as well as improve food security by reducing the risk of animal-borne diseases, e.g., mad cow. It could also greatly reduce ecological and environmental stress, factors such as clean water, energy use, methane and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions are generated by livestock production - more than that of all global transportation combined. Then there are the anticipated increases in world meat demand by a rapidly increasing population. Test-tube burgers sounding better yet?
Of course, the real test will be taste. Acceptable cultured-beef flavor and texture will hinge on fat - about 20% fat is needed to make a burger taste satisfying. To this end, vegetable oils, milk or plant protein sources all have properties that can be used to simulate fat. Insect proteins can be also be added to supplement essential amino acids. (The technology behind insect-derived cultured foods has been around for years and offers many of the same advantages as cultured meat.) If none of this sounds appetizing, don’t fret; you likely have several more years before test-tube burgers make it to your local fast-food joint.