Next week, a handful of journalists will taste test the first synthetic meat ever to have been cultivated entirely in a laboratory. The animal-free meat was developed by scientists at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands who used bovine stem cells to develop the lab-steak in vitro.
It's about time. We're already three decades behind schedule, according to the late Winston Churchill's calculations. Yes, Churchill predicted the rise lab-grown meat before World War II. The iconic 20th century figure had a pretty colorful pre-prime ministerial life, you'll recall, and it included penning predictive essays on the nature of human progress.
In a 1931 essay for Strand Magazine called "Fifty Years Hence," Churchill predicts a future wherein scientists exploit microbes to produce lab-grown meat just as bakers use yeast to make bread. Here's his idea of how the science would work:
Microbes, which at present convert the nitrogen of the air into the proteins by which animals live, will be fostered and made to work under controlled conditions, just as yeast is now. New strains of microbes will be developed and made to do a great deal of our chemistry for us. With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth.
Churchill imagines that lab-grown meat would prove a great boon to society, and will replace raising livestock on farms altogether.
We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future. Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished. That gloomy Utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded. The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.
That's still the goal today, some 80 years later. And the researchers working on the issue today sound a lot like the old British PM.
"We have a class of products that just totally rocks and cannot be distinguished from the animal-based product it replaces, even by hardcore foodies," Stanford University biochemist and lab meat engineer Patrick Brown told NBC last year.
Dr. Mark Post, the man behind the meat to be unveiled next week, is a little more cautious. His product "tastes reasonably good," he told The New York Times.
But he's confident that the day Churchill foresaw is indeed upon us. He's confident that his lab meat will serve. He just needs the extra push. The goal now is to "make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to, ‘well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it.’"
Now only the taste-testers will tell if both Post and Churchill's predictions are ready to be redeemed.