When it comes to food, will fake be the new real?

15 August, 2013

One of the immutable truths in the life of a journalist is this: the moment you take a holiday, an interesting story breaks.

So it was that while I was recharging amidst family and friends in the desert in America’s Southwest, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was unveiled.

The tiny patty of beef was the result of years of effort by Dutch vascular physiologist Mark Post of Maastricht University. “People might think this is a crazy way to produce meat. But it’s inevitable”, Post said of his test-tube creation.

Ignoring Post’s assertion that “Cultured beef is normal beef. It consists of cow cells”, the petri-dish meat was immediately embraced by veggie and vegan groups as the compassionate and animal-friendly way forward.

But lab grown meat is far from the perfect, environmentally friendly, cruelty-free burger it was made out to be.

The problems begin with the price; that single burger cost $330,000 (£220,000) to produce. When animal rights group PETA offered £1 million to the first scientists who could make lab grown (chicken) meat a commercial success – this probably wasn’t what they had in mind. (Indeed the caveats on that offer are so restrictive that it is unlikely it will ever be paid out!)

Look even deeper behind the celebratory headlines and guess what else you’ll see? The in vitro burger also required a steady diet of antibiotics and foetal stem cells (taken from unborn animals collected from slaughterhouses) to help it grow.

Because lab-grown meat doesn’t have fat, as the live telecast of the taste test showed, it needed to be fried in a huge amount of butter to keep it from drying out. In future say the scientists they could add lab-grown fat to the meat to give it more flavour.

It also requires a colouring since the test-tube meat is actually yellow. While vegetable colourings like beetroot and saffron were added for the initial taste test, the makers believe that ultimately blood is the only thing that will give the lab burger the realistic colour that meat-eaters expect.

And don’t expect the lab burger to be on the shelves any time soon. Commercial development could take up to 20 years – so it’s not exactly fast food.

Even as a proof of concept it was a pretty poor show.

My concerns were so vast they couldn’t really be expressed in the futile 140 character thoughts and replies I pinged out into the twitterosphere. Chief among them is the concern that our global food problems aren’t caused by a lack of processed foods and that taking food production in this direction only further separates us from our food sources, entrenching the belief that food comes from factories not farms.

But for me the really dark side of this story is the money behind the burger, which came from Google founder Sergey Brin.

Brin is one of a cadre of Silicon Valley technocrats who have decided that food is their next, if you’ll pardon the expression, cash cow.

Others include Sun Micorsystems’ Vinod Khosla who is backing start-ups for egg and cheese analogues as well as lab-grown meat and leather, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone who have just launched the Beyond Meat chicken analogue made from pea and soya protein and Microsoft founder Bill Gates who is investing in chicken-less eggs.

Taking things one step beyond the Google-burger is a company called Modern Meadow, backed PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, which aims to combine in-vitro meat cultivation with 3D bio-printing, producing a steak you can print out as easily as an advertising flyer. Only instead of ink you use blood and other biological materials.

One of the big worries about GM food has always been that the patenting of DNA and of seeds turns food into a commodity and puts control of the food system into the hands of big corporations. That concern applies here too.

Although the new food technocrats plead environment and health as their sole motivation, I suspect the real reason for their interest is they spy a patenting opportunity like no other. While around two-thirds of the global population still doesn’t have access to computers or internet – everyone has to eat.

And make no mistake, these guys have decades of experience in ruthlessly capitalising on and exploiting patents for profit.

Things have to change in our concepts of food production and consumption; there is no doubt about that. But will this direction of travel really take us to sustainable food heaven or simply lead us further into fake food hell?

Pat Thomas, Editor