Is This the Food Technology of the Future?

09/16/2013 11:45

The process began at an otherwise normal-looking organic farm, with a normal-looking cow.
But that's where the normality ends.

The cow wasn't on death row, waiting to be slaughtered to provide meat in the usual way. Rather, it was part of a cutting-edge scientific experiment, where its cells were harvested to provide new-age food.

In London on Monday, the process culminated in the live cooking and tasting of the world's first lab-grown burger.

The questions are obvious. How? And why?

From the Lab to Your Plate: Revolutionary or Repulsive?

Let's deal with the "how" first.

The experiment is the work of Professor Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. They started by extracting "muscle-specific stem cells" from the cow. He says the beauty of these cells is that they "divide by themselves" and "self-organize into muscle."

But the lab added nutrients and growth-promoting substances to help them develop and multiply faster. A few weeks later, they'd turned into 20,000 small, wafer-thin strips of muscle fiber, which were pressed together and made into a burger.

As Post says, "A few cells that we take from this cow can turn into 10 tons of meat."

Because the finished product looks white, the team added beetroot juice to give it the beef color. They then added saffron, breadcrumbs and salt for flavor and texture.

After all, as Post's colleague, Helen Breewood, tells the BBC, "If it doesn't look like normal meat, if it doesn't taste like normal meat, it's not... going to be a viable replacement."

Still, a quick straw poll of the Wall Street Daily team produced one main reaction: "Ugh, sounds nasty."

And if you're thinking the same, Breewood understands: "A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first." But she reminds skeptics that "if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they'd also find that repulsive."

That's why the project scored a big-name backer to fund it - Google (GOOG) Co-Founder, Sergey Brin - who got involved because of animal welfare concerns.

Here's how the lab-grown burger was created...

So why do it?

Beef Battle: Livestock vs. the Lab

For one, global food shortages. Some "one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry," says Professor Tara Gannett, head of Oxford University's Food Policy Research Network.

Worse... a whopping 50% of all the food we produce goes to waste.

If we can create more from less, it could go a long way to tackling this problem.