Beef with science


What’s for dinner? Scientists are cooking up something new: a hamburger made of meat that was never the living flesh of an animal. Hold that “yum.”

The test-tube burger is made from the stem cells of a cow grown into thin strands of muscle fiber. It was the subject of a public tasting in London last week, although only two people were allowed to try it. They both described it as almost like a conventional burger; one said it wasn’t as juicy.

The 5-ounce patty won’t be coming to a kitchen near you anytime soon. It was the result of a five-year project, although it took only three months to grow the cells. Much remains to be done.

A scientist created the meat in his lab at a university in the Netherlands with the help of a Dutch food technician. Quite apart from the remaining scientific questions to explore, there is the cost: This small burger cost $300,000 to develop. You want fries with that?

Why bother trying to improve on nature? The world’s population has grown to more than 7 billion, and this horde threatens to outstrip available resources. If the ersatz burger proves nutritious and reasonably like the real thing, famine itself might be kept at bay.

Cattle eat a prodigious amount of grass and consume large quantities of water. Those resources could be used to grow grain to feed more people.

Cattle are infamously flatulent; the tons of methane they send into the air contribute to global warming. If meat were grown in the lab, greenhouse-gas emissions in the process would be cut by an estimated 80 percent, and water use by 90 percent.

Vegetarians can see an ethical benefit in burgers for which no animals were harmed in their production. But not everybody is going to be charmed. You can bet that someone will claim, ahead of any evidence, that this latest variant of frankenfood will harm humans.

The biggest problem with producing meat from the lab may not be the technology that allows it to be created. It may be the public-relations struggle to have it accepted, even if can be sold for far less than natural meat. And you thought Spam had a PR problem.