Source: Reportonbusiness
Date: 3 August 2007

New recipe for sustainability: stem-cell burgers

NEIL REYNOLDS

OTTAWA Fifty years hence, 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.

Winston Churchill, 1932

Winston Churchill was correct, in his volume of essays entitled Thoughts and Adventures, to anticipate the manufacture of meat, first in the lab, then in vats. He was wrong in the time it would take to get industrial meat into mass production. We're still not quite there. It's going to take another five years or 10 years - depending on whether you're waiting for hamburger or steaks.

The science and the technology exist. Dutch scientist Henk Haagsman's research team at the University of Utrecht, supported by million-dollar grants from the Dutch government, manufactures a kind of ground pork from the stem cells of pigs. His assignment now is to determine whether the process will work on an industrial scale - with a conclusion due in 2009.

Professor Haagsman, one of the world's top authorities in "meat sciences," believes that the industrial production of meat will be possible and practical - believes, indeed, that he and his colleagues will have commercial products by 2012.

("We have no loin yet," he reports, "but we do have a minced pork.") The global market for ground meats is $150-billion (U.S.) a year.

You can look at Prof. Haagsman's research (and related research under way around the world) in a number of ways, all bewildering.

On the one hand, cultured meat heralds the end of the Age of the Abattoir and, with it, our apparent need to slaughter 40 billion animals a year. Civilized people must necessarily approve. On the other hand, cultured meat introduces another processed agri-food that severs humanity further from the natural world, increasing the sense that we are mere units of biomass, a sort of livestock ourselves.

Consumers will almost certainly accept cultured meat regardless of metaphysical reservations. Stem-cell hamburger will have no e-coli, no salmonella. It will have no fat - or only fat put there as an additive. Taste won't be much of a problem, since we'll probably have meat of many tastes, possibly including raisin-cranberry and tutti-frutti. (Meat has scarcely any taste now, for that matter, except from spices and filler used to mimic one.) And Prof. Haagsman says that cultured meat will taste the same as animal meat - because the protein content (which imparts taste) will be the same.

We are talking here about one the most revolutionary human adaptations in history, one that will theoretically make it possible to meet the world's demand for meat from a single cow, a single pig, a single chicken. From the beginning of human existence, the roasting of the muscle tissue of other animals over an open fire has symbolized the fulfilment of life. Manufactured meat could end this rite of killing and cooking - though traditionalists will try to preserve the ancient art.

For all the complexity of the research, the method is now patented. (Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. and European sausage manufacturer Stegeman, a subsidiary, have supported the Dutch research work.) You identify the stem cells that deliver the maximum number of progeny cells - from which, in a bioreactor, you grow crops of muscle cells. These cells produce the muscle tissue that constitutes meat. The growth medium is water and glucose. Add amino acids. Season to taste.

The first commercial products will be ground pork, ground beef and processed meat - hot dogs, sausage, meats used in pizzas and sauces. New Harvest, a U.S. non-profit research organization, says that complex meats - steaks - will take an additional 10 years. But University of Maryland biologist Jason Matheny believes that meat cultivation will come one day to resemble grape cultivation, with micro firms developing unique vintage meats. People will have meat makers in their kitchens, he says, right beside their bread makers. You will add your own omega-3 fatty acids to your bacon-burgers.

Around the world, according to the United Nations, more than one billion agricultural workers tend 40 billion animals destined for human consumption. The low-tech people who tend this vast herd will be replaced by biologists and lab workers.

The herd itself will be replaced by microscopic cells that forever replicate flesh - but flesh that has never been part of a living animal. Great tracts of grazing land will revert to wooded waste and forest. And the nine billion people who ultimately inherit the Earth will live in vast urban concentrations where high-rise farms, down the street from the bank and the theatre and the shops, will feed the world without any need for grass or soil, for rain or sun.

nreynolds@xplornet.com


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