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News Icon 31/07/2013

The way meat is produced “hasn’t changed much” over the last 100 years, according to Microsoft magnate, Bill Gates. That could all be about to change when the world’s most expensive beef burger is cooked and eaten next week in front of massed ranks of press. The burger, made from ‘in vitro’ or laboratory-produced meat and valued at €250,000, is the work of Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, a signatory to Compassion’s vision for fair food and farming.

The burger in question will be made of about 3,000 tiny strips of artificial beef grown from the stem cells of a slaughtered cow. The demonstration aims to show proof of concept for a technology that has been bubbling away in laboratories for a decade or more.

Professor Post is one of a number of pioneers seeking to transform the way meat is produced. As Gates puts it, innovation in meat production has “tremendous market potential”. As it stands, the basic process remains unchanged, of relying on animals to eat plants, who then provide a fraction of the calories and protein they consume in the form of meat, milk and eggs. The outlook is for a near doubling of global demand for meat by 2050, placing a huge strain on the planet’s already overstretched resources. As Gates puts it, meeting that demand isn’t sustainable; “there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people”, the number expected on the planet by mid-century.

In an online presentation, Gates describes how food scientists are ‘reinventing’ meat and eggs, creating alternatives that are “just as healthful, are produced more sustainably”. It’s not about asking everyone to be vegetarian, he explains, but looking at fresh options for producing ‘planet-friendly’ meat. He sees the future being in the ‘perfect fake’. He’s in good company.  Former British prime minister, Winston Churchill, saw the potential when he said, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.

The benefits of finding a new way to produce meat without the need for lots of animals are summed up by best-selling author, Michael Pollan; “conventional meat production is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, as well as water and pollution… the animal factories that produce most of our meat and milk are brutal places where animals suffer needlessly”.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Jason Matheny of New Harvest, which is dedicated to producing alternatives to meat and other animal products. I asked him what lab-produced or ‘cultured’ meat might taste like; “Well, it should taste the same as conventional meat because it’s made out of the same stuff… we think we can match that same taste and texture by producing meat in culture in a way that’s much safer, much more efficient and much healthier for the consumer”.

There is a long way to go before large-scale in-vitro meat production is realistic – and a mountain to climb to overcome the ‘yuck’ factor. However, Matheny is undaunted, focusing on the benefits; “In cultured meat, you can precisely control the amount of fat so you can have more of the healthy fats like Omega-3 and less of the unhealthy fats.  So we can have hamburgers that actually prevent heart attacks rather than cause them,” he said. “The yuck factor should really be focused on conventional meat and the way it’s produced right now which is simply unhealthy, unsafe and unsustainable.”

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