Yesterday at a press event in London, two food writers took a bite into the world’s most unusual hamburger. Grown meticulously from cow stem cells, the hamburger patty represents the dream (or pipedream) of many animal rights activists and environmentalists. The burger was developed by Physiologist Mark Post of Maastricht University and funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin in an effort to create real meat without the corresponding environmental toll.
In order to create the burger, Post and his team extracted stem cells from two cows and employed thee to grow 20,000 muscle fibers, which were then removed by hand and pressed together. The researcher team added beetroot juice, saffron and breadcrumbs, with the end result being a biologically-real piece of beef in three months time but costing around $330,000.
But why create such a hamburger at all?
For animal welfare activists, it means producing meat that is truly cruelty-free. No animal died, or lived in suffocating conditions, for that single hamburger eaten yesterday. In fact, Sergey Brin noted that he funded the development of the stem cell burger due to his concerns over livestock conditions in modern farming. This issue has also pushed many animal rights groups, such as PETA, to help fund similar efforts.
The other issue is global sustainability. Although meat is craved by many, it comes with massive environmental impacts. As a food source meat is hugely inefficient, requiring more land, water, and energy resources than many other staple foods such as grains. Around a quarter of the world’s usable land is made up of pasture, while growing food for livestock takes up around 30 percent of arable land. For example, most of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is linked either to cattle ranches or soy fields, the latter which is often used to feed livestock.
Cattle herd where rainforest once stood in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The meat industry also has a massive greenhouse gas footprint: 5 percent of the world’s carbon and nearly 40 percent of its methane is linked to livestock.
But in a world of seven billion people (and rising), demand for meat is not slowing down. In fact in many parts of the world where the middle class is growing—such as China, India, and Brazil—demand for meat is skyrocketing with large-scale environmental impacts.
According to Mark Post, the stem cell hamburger grown in his lab decreased land-use by 90 percent and energy costs by 70 percent.
“Twenty years from now, if you have a choice in the supermarket between two products that are identical and they taste and feel the same and have the same price—and one is made in an environmentally friendly way, with far fewer resources and provides food security for the population and doesn’t have any animal welfare connotations to it—the choice will be relatively easy,” Post told the Guardian. “People will start to prefer this type of product and then it will gradually transform meat production.”
But how did the stem cell burger taste? One of the tasters, Hanni Rützler with the Future Food Studio, called it “close to meat,” adding “it’s not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect.”
Another foodie, Josh Schonwald, author of the Taste of Tomorrow, said the “bite feels like a conventional hamburger,” but missed the fat of a burger from a live animal.
The burger heard round the world yesterday is only seen as a prototype. Commercial mass production is probably still at least a decade away.
Amazon rainforest and cattle pasture. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
(10/11/2011) Meat consumption and production remains on the rise, according to a new report Worldwatch Institute, with large-scale environmental impacts especially linked to the spread of factory farming. According to the report, global meat production has tripled since 1970, and jumped by 20 percent since 2000 with consumption rising significantly faster than global population.
(05/14/2013) A new 200-page-report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urges human society to utilize an often-ignored, protein-rich, and ubiquitous food source: insects. While many in the industrialized west might turn up their noses at the idea of eating insects, already around 2 billion people worldwide eat over 1,900 species of insect, according to the FAO. Expanding insect-eating, the authors argue, may be one way to combat rising food needs, environmental degradation, and climate change.
(04/21/2010) Just less than 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of milk, according to a new study by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Covering dairy producing animals from small nomadic herds to massive industrialized dairy operations, the FAO study factors in the production, processing, and transportation of milk as well as the fertilizer, pesticides, and feed used in the dairy industry. The total rises 4 percent if using dairy animals for meat is included.
(03/28/2010) Meat is booming. In the past thirty years, livestock production has increased threefold. In many parts of the world where incomes are expanding, meat, once a delicacy, is now eaten regularly and voraciously. But what are the environmental impacts of this ‘livestock revolution’? Two recent studies look at the global impact of the livestock industry, one alleges that its environmental impacts in relation to greenhouse gas emissions has been overestimated, while the other takes a holistic view of the industry’s environmental impact.