Not your average burger

Scientists grow meat in a lab

Do you know where your meat comes from? Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands is adding “the laboratory” to an ever-growing list of meat sources in our society.

The burger is not genetically modified and is not to be confused with meat substitutes. Cultured Beef, “is biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow,” according to Maastricht University’s Cultured Beef website. To develop the burger, scientists extract and harvest muscle cells from cows. As the cells are fed, they begin to multiply. This creates the muscular tissue we recognize as edible meat.

“The beef is produced from beef cells and during the production process there are no chemicals added,” notes the Cultured Beef website.

The cows used in the project were raised on organic farms. While the product is still meat, strictly speaking, and not directed at vegetarians, animals used for the cell biopsies are not harmed. A single sample obtained from a cow has the potential to create 20,000 tons of Cultured Beef.

Two people sampled the cultured beef for the first time on Monday, Aug. 5. Maastricht University suggested that the beef tastes like a normal burger patty. Both volunteers were in agreement that the petri dish hamburger was strongly reminiscent of a traditional hamburger, but less fatty and juicy. The colour and texture was obtained from red beet juice, saffron, and breadcrumbs.

The Dutch government initially financed the research. Maastricht University’s Cultured Beef website states that after 2010, an unnamed private partner renewed funding . On Aug. 5, the Guardian revealed that Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, supplied the additional money.

Michel Aliani, associate professor in human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, explained that adapting muscle to meat for consumer palates is not a quick process.

“Converting muscle to meat is a long procedure. It takes time [ . . . ] there are a lot of biochemical reactions and they are very slow,” said Aliani. “Red meat takes at least two to three days to get it to the optimum moment where all flavour precursors are there.”

Aliani noted that this procedure improves the taste of the meat. Numerous chemical reactions occur during the cooking process, which is what gives the meat specific flavours, whether it has been barbecued, fried, or boiled.

“I don’t expect [the flavour precursors] to be identical because they’re coming from stem cell research.”

Maastricht University is promoting Cultured Beef as a more environmentally friendly way to consume meat products. Their website suggests that the production of the beef could use 99 per cent less space than current livestock farming practices.

Methane from livestock rearing is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas pollution. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that, at 18 per cent, livestock emissions contribute a greater fraction to overall human output than cars.

The Cultured Beef burger suggests a movement away from livestock farming in general, toward artificial meat production. Cultured Beef has the potential to be produced in controlled environments, requiring less energy and finite resources.

“Meat production uses about 40 per cent of all the land in the world, and about 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources,” said Stephane Perrais, director of operations at Mercy For Animals Canada. He described conventional and factory farming methods as “extremely inefficient,” stating that the amount of grain needed to produce one pound of beef is 10 to 15 pounds.

Stephane McLachlan, professor in the department of environment and geography at the U of M, weighed in on the potential social and environmental effects of the Cultured Beef burger.

“People should be part of our agri-food systems and it shouldn’t just be seen as a lab [ . . . ] we already have rural depopulation [ . . . ] we already have farm bankruptcies in ways that we’ve never seen before,” said McLachlan.

The prairies have a unique situation in regards to meat production. Since the growing season is only around two to three months long, McLachlan proposed that the production of meat by conventional farming methods is positive for communities. He disagreed with the idea that farming is negative to society.

“One way of effectively increasing that growing season is by incorporating animals into your production system, because you can raise those animals year-round instead of being restricted to that growing season of vegetables and fruit,” said McLachlan.

He referred to a “closed-loop” system, where farmers can use fertilizer from the animals to grow vegetables.

“Farmers have told me that [ . . . ] animals only become important largely to human beings if you use them somehow.”

Although the system of factory farming still makes up the majority of meat production, Canadian farmers and consumers are exploring alternatives. McLachalan listed the 100-mile and 1,000-mile diets, both examples of diets focused on locally grown foods.

He was careful to note that the burger may not be available in grocery stores for decades.

The Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance (MAFRA) is a group searching for more sustainable methods of food production and distribution.

According to MAFRA’s website, Manitoba is struggling in terms of “healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.” Northern communities especially have an issue acquiring cost-appropriate and good-quality meat.

In a video on the Cultured Beef website, Post suggested that the burger is ethically beneficial. McLachlan, on the other hand, argued that access to food is a larger worldly issue than inadequate food production. Numerous factors are involved, including political and socioeconomic issues.

“We already have enough food in the world; the problem is [implementing] distribution that is just and fair,” said McLachlan.

Stephane Perrais of Mercy for Animals Canada speculated on the potential for cell replication to one day completely eliminate the involvement of animals in the process.

“As long as an animal is involved in the production process, it obviously can be, and will be, subjected to forms of abuse that we think are not necessary,” said Perrais.

Perrais did however concede to the Manitoban that the burger is “a step in the right direction [and] might help people transition to a more compassionate type of diet.”

Those wishing to head out to the grocery store immediately still have a long time to wait. Lab-cultured beef is expected to be readily available anywhere from 10 to 20 years from now. The current product carries a hefty price tag, costing over 250,000 euros (just under $345,000 Canadian) to produce.