IT’S BEEF, but not as we know it. Steve Osborne takes a look at whether the public will see lab burgers in the same light as GM food.
As populations rise and food demand increases correspondingly, a global search for solutions is under way to ensure that we can continue to meet this growth. Earlier this year, Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University used technology to grow enough tissue from beef stem cells to produce a burger, which was cooked and eaten by some willing volunteers.
While the commercialisation of such technology is many years away, it’s undoubtedly starting a fascinating journey, and opening new channels of science in the food debate. Genetic modification (GM) is the closest comparison that can be made with Post’s innovation, and that was a technology which was considered by some as a step too far.
Over the last 20 years, public awareness of sustainability has increased. Provenance has become a key word for the food industry and real strides are being made in meeting the “natural” agenda. There is, however, still doubt over the role of science in food, and the media is filled with recurring themes of food industry scandals and exposés of technologies previously considered as the force behind food, but now being scrutinised by an increasingly educated public.
During this period, the depth of meaning behind the term “sustainability” has evolved. It is increasingly realised that “having the capacity to endure” needs to account for population rises, water shortages and energy resources, and that this cannot be achieved through organic, fair trade or buying produce locally (certainly not at a global level). The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, acknowledged this when he suggested that GM crops should be given serious consideration. Times have changed, and GM crops may now hold some of the solutions.
The lab burger produced by Post is the ultimate “Frankenfood” and this is always going to resonate with public discord. However, the meat industry has been rocked by numerous issues – BSE and horsegate to name two – and these will be used by both sides of the debate. On the one hand, laboratory meat could overcome hygiene and feed issues and eliminate supply chain fraud. On the other, what potential issues may arise as the result of poor and unscrupulous lab practices? But, with promises of better land use and a more efficient energy return than farming, laboratory-grown meat will continue to gain funding and research as its usefulness and range of applications are explored and quantified.
It will take time, however. It has taken two decades for anyone to dare suggest that GM might be OK and that it could be time to restart the debate, not least because we now have 20 years’ worth of data in hand. As a result, we might find that the new risk assessment may be very different from the original. This will undoubtedly be the course of the lab burger. It is many years off commercialising and at that stage in its development it will draw comparison to the GM debate, lacking data to support its safety record and long-term effect.
However, this prediction is only based on knowing what we know now. When we open this level of debate, it will be conducted based on the facts of the era. Food is, and will always be, an emotive topic, and something as radical as the lab burger, wh”ile exciting at a scientific level, will always be judged with cynicism and scepticism by the consumers – at first, anyway.
Steve Osborn is business innovation manager at Leatherhead Food Research