Imagine hamburgers without the need to slaughter cows... Imagine growing meat without needing the entire animal. It might sound like science fiction, but professor Mark Post and his research team from Maastricht University have helped making this a reality. Soon they will be grilling the very first in-vitro burger, as Dr. Nynke van den Akker will illustrate on the second RetailDetail Congress.
The very first synthetic burger, how should we imagine this?
N.v.d.A.: “Just like any other burger: we have been creating a lot of muscle fibre, which we will soon combine into a real burger. We then intend to grill it and taste it. The idea itself is fairly old: Winston Churchill already proposed the idea for a synthetic burger in the 1930s. And he was right: it is strange to breed and feed an entire animal to eventually only use a small part of it.
Professor Mark Post performed several experiments over the past decades, and while they did not lead to the production of meat, they did examine the principle and the feasibility. When enough financing was gathered, Maastricht University founded a research team that started working on truly creating in-vitro meat.”
Why is the current meat consumption a problem?
N.v.d.A: “Today seventy percent of the earth’s surface is being used for the production of meat, going from meadows where the animals can graze to the growing of crops to feed those animals.
The greenhouse effect of those animals is also very high: about twenty percent of worldwide greenhouse emissions comes from livestock; more than all traffic combined. A cow is also very inefficient: for every 100 grams of plant protein a cow ingests, only fifteen percent is turned into usable meat.
The WHO (World Health Organisation) predicts the demand for meat will rise to 376 million tons by 2030, compared to the 218 million tons in the period 1997-1999. By 2050 the demand will probably have doubled, mainly due to growth markets such as India and China. The current meat production will not suffice.”
Should we be going for a vegetarian alternative then?
N.v.d.A: “Vegetarian food is an option, but we see it is very difficult to change the eating habits of people. You can not control what people want to eat, so it is unrealistic to believe that the world’s population will start eating vegetarian all of a sudden. The numbers suggest the demand for meat will keep on rising, instead of going down.”
Are there other advantages to in-vitro meat?
N.v.d.A: “Another big advantage to meat grown in a laboratory is it can be made healthier. We can control the amount of fat and the portion saturated fat versus unsaturated fat. The amount of salt can also be controlled and we can even add vitamins and nutrient.”
Will this ‘new meat’ be economically feasible, as consumers are always looking for the lowest price?
N.v.d.A: “We researched this and it appears this would be no problem. I also believe the consumer will readily embrace the concept. Even today the interest in healthy food and biological meat is rising. People are growing discontent with how unsustainable the current system is, with the horse meat scandal as a good example.
Price will of course remain an important issue. At the moment one burger costs 250,000 euro - this means we still have a lot to do, but we are sure we can eventually bring the price down to a competitive level.”
What will happen with the current livestock, and the farmers?
N.v.d.A: “In-vitro meat is meant to be an answer to the rising demand for meat in the future, because the classic production will not be able to keep with their current methods. It will complement – and not compete – with farmers.
It is important to emphasise that the first burger, which we will be presenting one of these days, only is a proof of concept. It is becoming a reality, but there is still a lot to do before we can bring it into the market.”
Want to know more? Nynke van den Akker will be speaking during the ‘Sustainability’ seminar at the RetailDetail Congress on Thursday 25 April in Schelle (near Antwerp). The complete program of the seminar (PDF) can be found here. Participation in the seminar also includes free entry to the RetailDetail Congress; for registration please visit www.retaildetailcongres.be.