17 Jul 14 Laboratory-grown beef: meat without the murder, but would you eat it?
Growing meat in labs could cut hunger, tackle climate change and end animal slaughter, but high-profile creator, Professor Mark Post, says the biggest beef will be convincing consumers. Here’s an interview with the man himself.
Last year you unveiled the world’s first lab-grown – or “in vitro” hamburger. How did it feel when you had it fried up, and you gave it to the first person to test? What if they had spat it out and said: “Ugh, this is awful”?
Well, yes. We’d selected food critics who said they wanted to taste synthetic meat at some point. But still, they are food critics, so they have to live up to their own standards. So, it was a nerve-racking moment. I felt they were pretty polite.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? When I said to my sister: “I am going to interview a scientist who’s created artificial meat,” she went: “Ugh”. And I said: “Yeah, because slaughtering animals to eat sounds so much more appetising.”
Exactly. Part of the process is that we are thinking more and more about what meat is. If something comes out of the laboratory and you analyse it under the microscope and it’s exactly the same, why wouldn’t we consider it just as meat?
Could it be that people think – because you haven’t bashed it over the head and slit its throat – that it can’t have that same degree of deliciousness?
Right. People find it hard to think about these terms in the absence of any real alternative. I think [lab-grown meat] will change our attitude to animal welfare. Those issues are there today but we ignore them because we don’t have an alternative. If we had an alternative, we could no longer ignore them. It will change our whole attitude towards meat, I think.
So do you think there is as much of a philosophical hurdle to overcome as a technological one?
Absolutely. We actually have philosophers on our team. You have to. If nobody wants to accept it, and nobody wants to eat it, then what’s the point?
I heard there’s a very scientific term for this, the “yuck factor”.
Yes, it’s extremely scientific. At the moment, this is still an intellectual exercise, because you don’t have it on your plate. And it’s a balancing act between the gut-feeling objection against it, and the rational acceptance that we cannot continue doing what we’re doing right now.
Our research indicates that about 70% of people see this as a beneficial development. It’s not necessarily that they’re going to eat it, but they see that it would replace something objectively bad, for the environment; for animal welfare; for food security.
I was told that you’re now working on a steak…?
It’s going to take longer. It’s more complex. Hamburgers are made out of scrap meat and our technology right now enables us to create small slivers of meat. One of the big issues in medical tissue engineering is how to create a type of blood-vessel system so that you can transport your feed, and also oxygen to all nooks and crannies of the tissue. We have to do this in collaboration with people who know a lot about 3D printing.
Given that the hamburger cost £200,000 to create, I dread to think what a filet mignon will cost.
I kind of liked that price because it told everybody that this is not a product that you should expect next week. It’s a proof of principle. It’s done in an academic lab by people with relatively high salaries, made by hand, fibre by fibre …
Artisan-crafted, I think they call it in the food world.
It’s a completely artificial price but we have done some calculations. If you scale up production, even with the current technology, the cost would be reduced to about £15 per kilo, which is still a lot … but we are pretty confident that if you improved that process, we can get that price down even further, to a competitive price with beef…..