The in vitro hamburger, also known as the lab created hamburger or “schmeat”, has been making international headlines since Chef Richard McGeown cooked it up in his London based restaurant. Not only is it the first of its kind, but the new meat has caused a controversy between its supporters and those who are in (might I add complete and utter) opposition.
If you’re just tuning in, in vitro meat has been in the works for quite some time. In 1995, the FDA approved NASA’s lab techniques to create in vitro meat suited for long term space travel. Fast forward a few years to 2006, major news publications, such as Wired and The Sunday Times, began reporting on the progress of what remained to be a mystery to most. In 2008, PETA announced they would reward on million smackers to the first company to produce “commercially viable” in vitro meat using chicken cells. Currently, the University of Maastricht is leading the pack in test tube meat thanks to Mark Post, the physiologist behind the first in vitro hamburger.
Regardless of PETA’s large prize, labs have been working day and night to produce affordable (and edible) schmeat due to what we see in our near future. The World Health Organization states that at our current rate of population, our demand for meat will double in the next 40 years. Organizations (like PETA) have approved of this new “advancement,” due to the decrease in animal cruelty as well as the decrease in environmental impacts, caused mostly by transportation and diet.
However, while the arguments that project the benefits of lab grown meat hold validity, it’s hard to recognize in vitro meat as the alternative to the meat we know today. NPR quotes Post stating, “Our current meat production is at a maximum and it’s not going to be sustainable… we need to come up with an alternative.” It’s not hard to agree with Post’s statement on the sustainability factor (or lack there of) of our current system, but it is hard to welcome his solution, in vitro meat, as a viable alternative.
While there are some benefits of schmeat (mentioned above), the negatives are destined to out weight the positives. For example, the amount of antibiotics used to grow test tube meat is equal to, if not exceeding, that used to feed conventionally raised animals. David Biello of Scientific American states, “[T]he in vitro meat features heavy antibiotic use to keep the cells alive and growth on serum from the blood of unborn cows gathered from slaughterhouses (as well as the less gruesome sugars, proteins and fatty acids).” As we are noticing today, flushing our systems with antibiotics is quite possibly leading us to a life of mysterious diseases and health problems.
The other aspect we have to consider is nutrition. The in vitro burger is said to lack essential cells, which account for not only the juicy taste we all love, but other nutrients, such as iron. “There are questions about its nutritional value as well, such as how much iron it might contain compared with traditional meat,” says Biello. Grist also admits they foresee in vitro meat go under what they call the “Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Sandwich treatment.” Because in vitro meat is flavorless due to a lack of fat, potassium chloride (salt), maltodextrin (a starchy thickener), autolyzed yeast extract (a cheap substitute for MSG), gum arabic (tree sap used as a stabilizer), soy protein concentrate (cheap protein additive), and sodium phosphates (more salt!) will be added to the meat for flavor but at the same time creating a nutrition-less monstrosity.
In vitro meat seems like the quick fix to a deeper-rooted problem. Instead of spending billions of dollars and countless hours on lab research to produce mystery meat with unforeseeable consequences, efforts should be focused on changing how we consume meat. Grass-fed beef (an environmentally sound solution to the conventional, methane-producing cows) should be more readily available at an affordable price, soon enough becoming our norm. Also in need of revitalization is education on the amount of meat consumed vs the amount of meat needed to survive. As some proponents of the in vitro burger cite (and rightfully so!) animals raised for consumption take up a lot of space. But what’s not being said is that our demand for meat (some demanding it at every meal) is out of control. While everyone’s diets vary, some of our meat could be substituted for more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, which also provide a substantial amount of protein.
Schmeat could just be a publicity stunt – many predicting it’s “ick factor” will never fly with the general public – but, Post is serious about getting his product in stores. “I am very happy about it… it will take us probably 10 to 20 years to get it to supermarkets,” says Post. However, before we jump on the schmeat bandwagon, it’s evident that potential consequences need to be seriously considered and addressed.