Food technology: Space food for today

Marbled beef (photo: Orlando G. Calvo)

But what does all this science have to do with the guy in the local supermarket looking for a quick meal after work? Well, his steak dinner for one could be shaken up very soon. By harvesting the stem cells from an animal, scientists can now grow ‘meat’ in a lab, cutting out the need to rear animals for slaughter. This is a real effort to minimize the impact our diet has on the planet. Due to the economies of scale, the average lab-burger costs about €10 to make. The meat consumes 90% less land and water to produce and uses around half the total energy, making it a winner on most fronts. The problem is you won’t get the ‘marbling’ from the fat, so we are still a long way from a genuine lab-grown steak.

The philosophical implications are huge, too – as stem cells could be taken from a living thing without harming it, there would be no reason why we couldn’t eat a panda, armadillo or elephant burger. Perhaps the ‘lab’ in Lab-burger could stand for Labrador in the near future? Will we soon be seeing steak and chips with a little green V next to it, as suitable for vegetarians?

The rush to produce quality lab-grown meat in a cost-effective way is less about the welfare of lambs, chicks and bunnies and more about the bottom line. While it could be seen as altruistic and even philanthropic, the only green the producers are looking at is the folding kind. If you recall the first flat-screen monitors from 15 or so years ago, you’ll remember how expensive they were. Nowadays, when every car, aeroplane seat or even fridge has an LCD screen, the cost per unit is minimal. When did you last see an old TV-type monitor?

Interested parties are ploughing a lot of capital into generating a cheap and reliable source of protein. The vegetarian argument goes along the lines of “if we were all vegetarian, there would be no more starvation in the world”. This is, of course only technically true, but if ‘meat’ can be grown in factories, it would tick all the boxes; low production costs, more protein for people to eat, a fantastic environmental footprint and ethically sound to boot. If the companies make a profit and the environmental campaigners are happy, surely it’s a win-win?