As the world’s population hurtles towards an estimated nine billion by 2050, global food shortages are becoming a very real problem. In no sector is this more apparent than the meat industry. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that around 70 percent of all agricultural land on Earth is currently used for meat production. It also predicts the demand for meat will increase by more than two thirds in the next 40 years as the middle classes grow in newly industrialised countries in Asia and South America.
Aside from awful humanitarian and animal cruelty issues, the meat industry is thought to have a significant effect on global warming as belching, farting livestock produce huge quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas 33 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It’s obvious that the meat industry as we know it is unsustainable, but for the vast majority of us the prospect of turning vegetarian is pretty grim. Vegetables aren’t filling, Quorn tastes like soil and the prospect of mass farming insects to squish into bugburgers makes me want to sew up my mouth and anus.
Fortunately, Professor Mark Post reckons he’s come up with a way for us to save the planet and gorge until we get the meat sweats. Unfortunately, it's not all that cost effective yet.
Professor Mark Post.
By harvesting muscle tissue from a living cow, Professor Post is able to cut the tissue into individual muscle cells. Each cell can then yield up to one trillion more, which will then naturally join up to form new muscle tissue. Five years and £250,000 after he started, Professor Post had created the world's most expensive burger patty, ready for an unveiling and tasting ceremony in London. As the world's media descended on the presentation in Hammersmith, I went along to see if “cultured beef” really was the saviour the meat industry needs.
The tasting was taking place in Riverside Studios – the former home of Top of the Pops and Dr Who. When I arrived I had to queue with the rest of the media in a corridor lined with portraits of famous comedians.
The one thing I learned from this experience was that journalists love puns. I heard, "Cultured beef? Is that beef that enjoys the opera? [relentless chortling]” about ten times before we even got into the tasting room. It was enough to make the portrait of Al Murray (perhaps the least funny man to have ever been given a TV show) holding a giant chicken seem like the best visual gag I’d ever seen.
The set looked like a cross between the Ready Steady Cook kitchen and what my memory is telling me the set of Tomorrow's World looked like. Which I guess is kind of fitting, considering that combination of ideas was exactly what the event was about.
The event kicked off with the above informational video, which was a sort of hybrid between the science videos you watch in school and a Dragons' Den pitch. Despite that, you should probably give it a watch anyway as it explains the science of cultured beef in groovy, easy to understand graphics. Also, it means I don’t have to stretch into the depths of my A-level Biology knowledge to try to explain how people are growing edible meat in Petri dishes nowadays.
After the video, Professor Post took to the stage and unveiled the burger. This was it – the moment we’d all been waiting for. He pulled a burger-sized Petri dish from a cooler, opened it up and there it was: a £250,000 beef patty. I’d love to say that the true significance of this moment resonated with me, but in truth I was sat very far away where I could barely see anything. Plus, as grand in scale as the patty's prospects might be, connecting to lab-grown mincemeat on an emotional level is pretty tough.
The tasting was presented by Nina Hossain from ITV London. Here she is interviewing Richard McGeown, the chef in charge of cooking the burger. You could tell he was a little nervous about ruining it. Which is understandable, considering the burger was – pound for pound – probably the most expensive piece of food ever cooked in the history of humanity. And burning a bit of meat that's worth the kind of money that could fund the building of 50 wells in Africa isn't going to look on your CV.
Not that Nina did much to ease his stress levels. While he was trying to get on with the cooking she kept bombarding him with repetitive questions that nobody really needed to know the answer to, like, “Is it cooking like a normal burger?” and “From a chef’s point of view, is there anything different about this burger?” (In case you do need to know the answers, they were "yes" and "no".)
It took the burger slightly longer to cook than I was expecting. Maybe Richard was cooking it on a low heat to avoid burning it as a hundred people stared intently at the frying pan in front of him. Or maybe I was just really, really hungry (I was).
Anyway, as the burger was sizzling away, we were introduced to the two special guests, who – along with Professor Post – would be eating and critiquing the first ever cultured beef burger.
The first guest to tuck in was Hanni Rutzler, a food and nutritional scientist. Hanni, while perfectly pleasant, was perhaps the worst possible candidate for this job. There were around 100 journalists hungrily waiting for quotes, and the best Hanni could come up with were, "It was hotter [temperature-wise] than I expected," and – when asked what it actually tasted like – "It's a bit like cake."
By this stage, the assorted media weren't just hungry for words, but for a bite of the burger they were all there to write about. A writer from the Huffington Post asked if just one of the assembled journalists could try it and give their feedback, but unfortunately that notion was shot down as "unfair" on everyone else. A writer from the Times yelled, "I really don't mind!" But it was no use; the dream was over.
It all rested on the second taster – Josh Schonwald. Josh is an author, so surely he could muster at least the beginnings of a description that the entire world’s press was gagging for. “I’d put it somewhere between Boca burger and McDonald's,” he said, forgetting that he was in London and nobody had any idea what a Boca burger was. “But it’s hard because I don’t know how many burgers I’ve eaten in my life without ketchup.”
Tasting over, it was time for the Q&A. Again, many of the questions related to a more accurate description of the taste, but all we got was, “It could use salt and pepper,” from Hanni. Meanwhile, Josh – in between shamelessly plugging his book, The Taste of Tomorrow – offered up, "I feel like the fat is missing. There's a leanness to it, but the bite is like a conventional burger."
Which, again, didn't really satisfy anyone in the audience.
After resigning ourselves to the fact that we were neither going to taste the burger nor get any real quotes on what it tasted like, the press instead started asking about the future of the science behind the patty.
Professor Post said he could envision mass production of cultured beef within 20 years and that it should, in theory, be the same price or cheaper than regular beef. He also alleviated concerns over how safe the meat is to eat, stating that it’s genetically identical to beef found in a cow and that yes, he would let his children eat it.
Probably the most astonishing fact of the day came when he was asked if he’d given any thought to a catchier name than “cultured beef”. He said they'd had a naming competition at Maastricht University, where the research was carried out, to see if anyone could come up with something better; 7,000 people entered but apparently not a single one of them was “satisfying”.
After the Q&A session, I – along with a few others – rushed towards the stage to get an up-close look at the remainder of the burger, but by the time we got there it had already been whisked away by security goons, like Nicki Minaj being led away from a mob of paparazzi.
I may have witnessed a historical moment, but as I left the tasting room I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. The whole event was to find out if the taste of beef could be replicated in the lab, and thanks to the incompetence of the tasters that’s still something we don’t really know the answer to. If I'm honest, I was also disappointed that I hadn't been able to nab a bite of it myself. But it looks like I’ll just have to wait 20 years like everybody else.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
All photos courtesy of Maastricht University.
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