Picture this: you’re sitting in a classic American diner – you know, chequered tiles on the floor and a jukebox in the corner. A few kids from the local school are sitting at the counter slurping the dregs of a vanilla milkshake. You’re waiting for your burger to arrive. Your stomach is rumbling in anticipation as burger after burger floats past you, carried by a young waitress wearing a red apron and loudly chewing gum. Each time she leaves the counter you pray that this time you will be lucky, only to be let down as she makes a turn and delivers the meaty package to another customer.
Then it happens. You’re looking at your phone, checking Facebook, when you hear a tray hitting the table in front of you. Your eyes slowly start to rise. It’s a classic burger. A large and juicy beef patty with cheese oozing out the sides of a greasy sesame topped bun. Fresh lettuce and tomato sit perkily atop the meat and you know there’s a pickle in there somewhere waiting to surprise you. Ketchup and mustard complete a scene of perfect harmony.
You catch yourself dribbling and wipe your mouth with a serviette. But that’s when you see it. On the next table there’s a newspaper and on the front cover there is a headline that makes you stop. It reads: “65 billion animals killed each year to feed the world”. Accompanying the headline is a picture of a calf, its big wet eyes pleading for a better way. “Perfect,” you think. “Now I feel bad about eating my burger.” However, you love eating meat and wish there were a way you could eat meat but not have to kill animals to do so.
Eating meat is a way of life. Where would we be without Sam Kekovich yelling at us to eat lamb for Australia Day, the weekly trip to the pub for a Pot n’ Parma or that kebab on the way home from a night out? But it’s hard not to occasionally feel guilty as you dig into a steak or a plate of ribs.
This is a problem that one particular scientist, Dr Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, believes he has solved. He has created a burger using stem cells.
First, he takes a small piece of muscle tissue from a cow, extracts stem cells and grows them in small containers in his laboratory. The cells are fed a serum extracted from foetal calves, which contains the nutrients they need to grow. After three to four weeks, when the few original stem cells now number in their millions, Dr Post splits the cells into different containers, binding them together to form muscle strands that are about a centimetre long and a couple of millimetres thick. To make more protein in the muscles and improve their texture, he frequently shocks the strands with electricity. From here, he and his team layer and combine the strands into a patty, adding flavouring, nutrients and colouring to make the burger as close to the real thing as possible. Dr Post says that from a single cow he can make about 100 million burgers, whereas currently a cow only yields about 100 patties of meaty goodness. What’s more, he says that the process can be replicated with any animal that he can extract the right stem cells from, with pigs, fish and chickens also on his to-save list.
As with any new project these days, combating climate change is on the cards. Studies have found that around 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from farming livestock. Partly because, on average, cows release 70kg to 120kg of methane per year, which is the equivalent of four to five tons of carbon dioxide or the annual emissions of a family car. By minimising the need for farming animals like cows and pigs in high quantities, lab grown meat could be the key to solving the climate change problem.
Then there is the inevitable water issues of the future. Each year, nearly half of the water used in America is on farms raising livestock for the food market. Cutting this could provide much needed water for dry areas and countries struggling through droughts. Studies have shown that almost 30 per cent of the world’s land mass is used to raise, slaughter or grow food to feed livestock. With overcrowding becoming a growing problem in cities around the world and with the space used for farming animals being tightened, suburbs could start to spread to ease the strain on inner cities.
For Dr Post, however, all his hard work and the potential positives are for naught if the burger tastes bad or has an unappetising texture. He says that the burger has got to be juicy, dense and meaty, with that familiar taste that we have grown fond of. His team includes burger aficionados, nutritionists, chefs and food sculptors all working together to perfect the ultimate ‘Frankenburger’.
Unfortunately, they haven’t quite got there yet. All reports say that while the burger tastes ‘close’ to meat, has some intense flavours and a ‘good bite’, it still lacks the density and juiciness of your regular quarter pounder. But Dr Post thinks that they aren’t far off, stating that by 2020 his burgers will be on the market, saving animal lives and changing the world.
So let’s go back to the restaurant: it’s now the year 2025 but everything else is the same. Your burger has just arrived, looking as sexy as ever, delivered by a waitress wearing a red apron. Only difference is this time, there isn’t a sad calf on the paper next to you and you don’t get that guilty feeling any more. The front page, instead, reads: “Donald Trump to become president of Earth”, but at least you can enjoy a guilt-free burger.