Today, Stuff has seen the future of food – and it tastes like "animal protein cake."
That's the verdict of one of the two tasters who were the first in the world to chow down on a beef burger made in a laboratory at a special event in London today.
Professor Mark Post is the brains behind the "cultured beef" burger – a project he's been working on since 2009, with backing from Google's Sergey Brin.
First past the Post
The burger is made from cow muscle cells cultivated in a nutrient solution – the cells are grown in a torus shape to encourage them to contract and expand. The result is strands of muscle fibre that can be moulded into a burger patty – once you have 20,000 of them.
Chef Richard McGeown reckons that the cultured beef burger looks "slightly paler" than a traditional burger – and that's with the addition of beet juice and saffron to colour it. And the verdict of the taste testers, author Josh Schonwald and food scientist Hanni Rützler? "There's a bite to it," with a mouthfeel that resembles meat – which you'd hope for, it being made of meat and all. The big sticking point among both taste testers is the lack of fat in the burger. They're working on that, says Post.
The food future
Why, though, has Post devoted so much time, effort and money – the burger cost some £210,000 (S$408,116) to produce – to creating meat in the lab? "Most people just don't realise that meat production is at its maximum," he explains. With the population set to expand, and more and more people becoming affluent enough to increase the amount of meat in their diet, current methods of farming aren't up to the task.
They're also energy-intensive and environmentally unfriendly – and while the cultured beef burger is expensive at the moment, in the future Post believes it'll be cheaper to grow meat in a petri dish than in a cow. Once that happens, he reckons that farm-grown meat will carry cigarette-packet style warnings of the ethical and ecological consequences of buying it.
We're just waiting for someone to come up with a woolly mammoth burger, now.
One of the most interesting aspects of cultured meat is what it means for ethical food producers and consumers. At the moment, the only meat Post's able to produce is strands of tissue that resemble processed meat – if we're being cruel, it looks rather like cheap microwaveable hamburgers. And given that Post claims that 50 per cent of meat is processed, it makes sense to target that market first.
But what happens when cultured meat becomes cheaper to produce than conventional meat? Suddenly, all those microwaveable hamburgers and dubious-looking frankfurters bought from garages will be made of cultured meat, not mechanically-recovered meat from factory farmed animals.
All of a sudden, the producers of the cheapest, nastiest meat products will be more ethical than the quaint farm with its grass-fed, massaged beef. No animals will have suffered in the making of their products, and they'll even be more environmentally friendly. Which will leave ethical consumers in a bit of a pickle – no more dry-aged rib-eye steaks, from here on in it's processed meat sticks all the way.