In 2013 there was a bit of a media buzz around the world’s first lab-grown burger – a hugely expensive slab of meat produced by patiently growing 20,000 tiny strands of muscle tissue. Since that time the team behind it have developed the idea further and scaled up the technology. The cost of a ‘cultured beef’ burger has fallen from the third of a million dollars that the first one cost to just $11.
At that price, cultured beef is marketable. It would still be a luxury product for those looking for ethical meat, but as awareness grows and the market expands, the cost will come down further. Cultured beef is coming. There’s a good chance that by the time my children are buying their own food, it will be widely available and won’t be considered at all weird.
The team behind that burger have founded a company called Mosa Meat, and they are not the only player in synthetic animal products. Muufri is doing something similar with milk, and a group called Clara Foods is making artificial egg whites.
Making a glass of milk with no cows involved is actually considerably easier than making beef. The genes for making the necessary proteins have been identified and then inserted into a yeast culture, so that the genetically adapted yeast will then produce the ingredients for milk. Cow’s milk is 80% casein, so that’s easy. Getting the cocktail of nutrients that milk provides will be trickier, but there are only 20 key ingredients to milk.
Radical though it sounds, we’ve been making insulin this way since the late 70s. If you’ve ever made your own cheese you’ll know about rennet too. This vital cheese-making ingredient used to be derived – somewhat bizarrely – from the stomach lining of calves, but we’ve been making it from engineered bacteria since the 90s.
Clara Foods have taken the same logic to eggs, or rather egg whites. Good luck to anyone trying to synthesize the perfection that is an egg. And in a thousand years of trying we’ll never be able to improve on the egg production capacities of the chicken. But just the egg whites – well, that’s a little easier. Egg white is composed of 12 different proteins, each of which can be made by bacteria. Cultured egg whites would probably be marketed as an ingredient to food companies rather than straight to consumers.
Why bother? Because artificial egg whites would spare billions of battery chickens a short and miserable life. It would save land and water used for growing feed. There’d be less risk of avian flu and other diseases spread through intensive farming. It would be a more convenient product to ship than eggs, and it may eventually be cheaper than farming chickens for eggs.
These sorts of technologies still have a tendency to make people queasy, but that’s mostly unfamiliarity. If you had a cheese sandwich for lunch today, then you probably ate enzymes created by a genetically engineered micro-organism (but you didn’t eat the organism itself, which is why this isn’t a GM food). 80 to 90% of cheese in Britain and the US uses fermentation-produced chymosin made this way. And if your cheese was made the old fashioned way, then congratulations: you ate enzymes from deep-frozen and ground up stomach linings instead.
Yes, foods or ingredients created this way are utterly removed from the land, and Western society is already disastrously disconnected from nature. But is buying a cultured beef burger from a supermarket any different from buying a neatly processed and shrink-wrapped ‘real’ burger. No – the experience is exactly the same. The disconnection happened elsewhere, a long time ago, when we stopped killing and butchering our own meat. Besides, if the ‘connection’ with nature that we’d be preserving by choosing the ‘real’ food is feedlot cattle or battery eggs, then we’re better off without it. Connections with land or animals can be abusive too.
But surely the answer lies in high welfare, grass-fed cattle, organic meat, free range hens? Yes, absolutely, if you have access to such things or live in a small town with a farmer’s market. But globally, it’s not a solution. We might be able to stretch to free range eggs, but we don’t have enough land for 7 billion people to enjoy high welfare beef and dairy. That will remain an elite option, a luxury.
We know that if we don’t tackle meat consumption worldwide, it will come to jeopardise action on climate change. By far the easiest thing to do is just eat less meat, but that’s easier said than done when you have established food traditions and aspiring new middle classes. People want to eat meat, and there’s no easy solution to that. Cultured animal products aren’t a magical solution either, but they may have a role to play and we should keep an open mind about technological innovation around food.