When U.K. television recently aired footage of three foodies tasting meat formed from approximately 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue in a Petri dish, viewers were witnessing a breakthrough that raises both hope and concern.
My first thought on hearing about this lab-grown burger was, “This is fantastic!”
Consider that according to the United Nations, some 30% of the planet’s surface is used to raise livestock. This produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars and trucks combined. (Hanna Tuomisto, who in 2011 conducted a study at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, found that growing meats in-vitro would use 35 % to 60% less energy, emit 80% to 95 % less greenhouse gas and use around 98% less land than conventionally produced animal meat.) So “growing” meat in-vitro is more friendly to the environment and arguably more sustainable. This kind of production also means we can control the amount of fat we allow in our meat, which makes for healthier consumption.
My next thought was how salt and other ‘add-ins’ to our foods have changed our taste palate and what impact that might have on consumer acceptance of made-in-the-lab meat. In the book, Sugar, Salt, Fat, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss writes about a food industry term called ‘the bliss point’. This refers to the precise amount of sweetness or saltiness—no more, no less—that makes food and drink most enjoyable. So why not—let’s find the bliss point for fat in proteins, too.
The GMO question
Another important point is that such meat does not qualify as a Genetically Modified Organism.
A GMO food has its genetic material altered using genetic engineering. Such plants and animals are ‘created’ through gene splicing techniques. They are foods created by merging DNA from different species. The first GMO crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, was approved by the FDA in 1994.
GMO food has its critics. According to David Suzuki, the safety of GMO foods is unproven, and a growing body of research connects these foods with health concerns and environmental damage. For this reason, most developed nations have policies requiring mandatory labelling of GMO foods at the very least, and some have issued bans on GMO food production and imports.
There is no ban in North America and GM crops see widespread use in Canada. Nearly all of our canola, for example, is genetically modified, as is a large portion of our country’s soy and corn.
So the test tube burger passes the “it’s not a GMO test,” but is it safe to eat otherwise? Yes, because the burger is made from stem cells. Such cells are found in organisms that can divide and differentiate into specialized cell types and can self-renew to produce more stem cells. They’re often known as omnipotent cells. (This means the burger cells have not been genetically modified.) So long as the parent animal is safe to eat, then so will its ‘offspring’ be as with traditional farming.
This test-tube burger is truly a disruptive innovation in food production, supply and safety. In fact, its creator Dr. Mark Post believes that commercial production of cultured beef could begin within the next 20 years. While his burger has not yet stimulated our culinary juices as much as our innovative ones it’s a powerful proof of concept and important first step.
Dr. Elaine Chin is a leader in preventive, personalized health care and founder of Executive Health Centre. Thirty years ago, when she was a medical student helping to create in-vitro fertilization babies at Toronto’s East General Hospital, and never thought she’d be asked whether or not we should eat hamburgers made in test tubes.