'Meat the future' Times leader on lab grown meat

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'It is only a matter of time before synthetic burgers migrate from lab to supermarket'> In long term - more space for expensive grass fed beef, efficient cereal crops and extensive wildlife?Uploaded by @blackgull

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Meat the Future

It is only a matter of time before synthetic burgers migrate from lab to supermarket

August 6 2013

The beefburger cooked and tasted before the worlds press in London yesterday was reared in a Dutch lab in trays of temperature-controlled pink fluid. It was given texture by tiny hooks to which each strand of artificial muscle attached itself for spontaneous contraction and relaxation and it was dyed blood-red with beetroot juice.

How absurd is it to imagine all our meat one day being produced by a similar process? Not much more absurd than it is to imagine all our meat continuing to be produced as it is now.

Synthetic meats first public tasting was long in the preparation and its arrival on shop shelves is still a long way off. The technology pioneered by Professor Mark Post, of the University of Maastricht, has yet to be perfected, not least in the incorporation of artificial fat into his artificial beef to enhance its taste and juiciness. Production volumes will have to be vastly increased to create the economies of scale needed to make it affordable, and EU regulatory approval for what will be classified as a novel food will not be quick.

Public acceptance will be gradual, but sooner or later it will come. Meat cultured from cows stem cells rather than carved from their bones may take decades to reach the checkout, but it is a compelling answer to a problem that world population growth poses on a similar timescale.

By the end of this century there will be close to ten billion human mouths to feed. If current trends continue, meat will form a steadily larger part of the average diet as Chinas taste for it grows. Yet traditionally reared meat is strikingly wasteful as a vehicle for nutrition and uniquely costly in terms of agricultural land.

A third of the worlds landmass that is not covered with ice is used for raising animals, most of them destined for the slaughterhouse, but only 15 per cent of the nutrients they eat are passed on to the people who eat them. Professor Post estimates that the equivalent figure for his artificial meat is 50 per cent.

He envisions fast-growing algae instead of grain as his main feedstock, and multistorey buildings instead of fields as his farms. One important result would be to free up land for crops intended for human consumption, easing the pressure on staple grain prices that has fuelled unrest across much of the developing world since the start of the Arab Spring. The food industry has responded ingeniously to growing demand for meat but at a high price in animal welfare as well as land.

Factory farms kill an astonishing 1,600 animals worldwide a second, and even for committed omnivores the conditions in which cattle and poultry bred for meat are reared can be deeply troubling. Intensive regulation of every link in the food chain, at least in the advanced economies, is supposed to keep meat safe and ensure at least minimally humane handling of livestock. It has not prevented the BSE scandal or the appearance of abundant horse meat in British ready meals.

Professor Post and his backer, the Google founder Sergei Brin, promote synthetic meat mainly for practical reasons. Peta, the animal rights group, supports it on ethical grounds. Both make strong cases that will strengthen with time, but neither group need herald the end of real meat if we can resign ourselves to eating less of it. The real significance of yesterdays experimental mush of nerveless bovine muscle is that meat, broadly defined, has a sustainable future.