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Test-tube hamburger – the solution to global food shortages?

Meat produced in a laboratory is being hailed as a possible solution to global food shortages. But what are its chances of catching on with consumers?

The world population is rocketing and, with it, the demand for meat. Soon there won’t be enough livestock to satisfy demand. Now, scientists at Maastricht University have come up with a technique to produce test-tube hamburgers (see diagram):

1. Muscle tissue is taken from a cow

2. The stem cells are removed

3. The stem cells multiply more than one billion times

4. The new muscle tissue is processed into a hamburger

This process takes up to six weeks. “That’s how long the cells need to multiply,” explains project leader Mark Post. “So you can’t decide in the morning that you want to eat meat and have a steak ready by the evening.”

Big whopper
Professor Post thinks the first test-tube hamburger will be a reality in a year’s time. But will it taste good?

“Yes, of course that’s the intention: the hamburger is meant for consumption. So it has to look and taste the same as the ‘real’ thing. We want to show the world that it’s possible to market this. We’re aware that there’s still a lot of scepticism about the technology.”

The Dutch government has invested heavily in the test-tube hamburger, which has so far cost 250,000 euros to develop. “So it’s a real Big Whopper!” The Netherlands is well ahead of the international field in this area of research.

It is hoped that the commercial sector will take over in the long term. “A lot of investment and work is needed, but within ten, twenty years, the meat can go into production.”

Food shortages
Test-tube meat (not just beef, but also chicken and lamb) could help solve global food shortages. But, Professor Post points out other advantages: animals wouldn’t have to be slaughtered or housed, savings would be made in energy costs, and CO2 emissions would be reduced.

Meat substitutes such as soya products have never caught on. Will people be prepared to eat artificially produced meat? Professor Post:

“I also had to get used to the idea that the product isn’t entirely natural or the result of simple technology such as livestock farming. But that’s nothing new: cheese also comes mainly from factories nowadays. At the end of the day, it’s all about a change of mindset. But people can adapt.”

Food trends

Dé van de Riet from the Commodity Board for Livestock, Meat and Eggs (PVE) is not so sure about this:

“There’s a lot of opposition to anything to do with genetics or meddling with nature. Scientists can invent all sorts of things, but actually getting people to buy them, that’s entirely another thing. The trend is: authentic, regional, genuine. You know where it comes from, preferably from a local farmer and butcher – and no additives. These are the food trends, and they’re completely opposite to meddling with animal products.”

No choice
People are against messing around with the food they put into their mouths. But, according to Prof Post, the huge growth of the world population means cultivated meat is the only choice we have left.

“If we can eventually make not only hamburgers and sausages, but also pork chops and steak, I think test-tube meat production will replace current methods. But of course, you’ll always be able to buy natural meat as a delicacy.”

Radio Netherlands World