A beef with science? PR may be the biggest hurdle for lab burgers

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What's for dinner? Let's ask some scientists in white lab coats. They are cooking up something new -- a burger made of meat that was never the living flesh of an animal. Hold the "yum" for the moment.

The test-tube hamburger, made from the stem cells of a cow grown into thin strands of muscle fiber, was the subject of a public tasting at Riverside Studios in London Monday, although only two tasters were allowed to try it. They both described it as almost like a conventional burger; one said it just wasn't as juicy.

The 5-ounce patty won't be coming to a kitchen near you anytime soon. As The Washington Post reported, it was the result of a five-year project, although it took only three months to grow the cells. Much more remains to be done.

A scientist, Mark Post, created the meat in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands with the help of Peter Verstrate, a Dutch food technician. Quite apart from the remaining scientific questions to explore, there is the cost. This small burger cost $300,000 to develop. There's no getting a bag full of these burgers with fries just yet.

But why bother trying to improve upon nature? For some very good reasons. The world's population has grown to more than 7 billion, and this horde threatens to outstrip available resources. If the ersatz burger proves nutritious and reasonably like the real thing, famine itself might be kept at bay.

Moreover, cattle eat a prodigious amount of grass and consume large quantities of water -- resources that could be used to grow grain to feed more people. There's another benefit, too: Cattle are infamously flatulent and send tons of methane gas into the air, contributing to global warming. If all meat were grown in the lab, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut 80 percent globally by one estimate and water use by 90 percent.

Vegetarians can see an ethical benefit in burgers for which -- as they say in the movies -- no animals were harmed in their production. But not everybody is going to be charmed. You can almost bet your lunch money that someone will claim that this latest variant of frankenfood will cause humans harm. That bias exists far ahead of any evidence.

Indeed, the biggest problem with producing meat from the lab may not be the extraordinary technology that allows it to be created; it may be the public relations struggle to have it accepted, even if can be sold for far less than natural meat. And you thought Spam had a PR problem.



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