Meat without murder: Professor who invented lab-grown hamburger on panda meat, kosher pork
Last summer you unveiled the world’s first lab-grown – or “in vitro” hamburger. How did it feel when you had it fried up, and you gave it to the first person to test? What if they had spat it out and said: “Ugh, this is awful”?
Well, yes. We’d selected food critics who said they wanted to taste synthetic meat at some point. But still, they are food critics, so they have to live up to their own standards. So, it was a nerve-racking moment. I felt they were pretty polite.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? When I said to my sister: “I am going to interview a scientist who’s created artificial meat,” she went: “Ugh”. And I said: “Yeah, because slaughtering animals to eat sounds so much more appetising.”
Exactly. Part of the process is that we are thinking more and more about what meat is. If something comes out of the laboratory and you analyse it under the microscope and it’s exactly the same, why wouldn’t we consider it just as meat?
Could it be that people think – because you haven’t bashed it over the head and slit its throat – that it can’t have that same degree of deliciousness?
Right. People find it hard to think about these terms in the absence of any real alternative. I think [lab-grown meat] will change our attitude to animal welfare. Those issues are there today but we ignore them because we don’t have an alternative. If we had an alternative, we could no longer ignore them. It will change our whole attitude towards meat, I think.
So do you think there is as much of a philosophical hurdle to overcome as a technological one?
Absolutely. We actually have philosophers on our team. You have to. If nobody wants to accept it, and nobody wants to eat it, then what’s the point?
I heard there’s a very scientific term for this, the “yuck factor”.
Yes, it’s extremely scientific. At the moment, this is still an intellectual exercise, because you don’t have it on your plate. And it’s a balancing act between the gut-feeling objection against it, and the rational acceptance that we cannot continue doing what we’re doing right now. Our research indicates that about 70% of people see this as a beneficial development. It’s not necessarily that they’re going to eat it, but they see that it would replace something objectively bad, for the environment; for animal welfare; for food security.
I was told that you’re now working on a steak…?
It’s going to take longer. It’s more complex. Hamburgers are made out of scrap meat and our technology right now enables us to create small slivers of meat. One of the big issues in medical tissue engineering is how to create a type of blood-vessel system so that you can transport your feed, and also oxygen to all nooks and crannies of the tissue. We have to do this in collaboration with people who know a lot about 3D printing.
Given that the hamburger cost £200,000 to create, I dread to think what a filet mignon will cost.
I kind of liked that price because it told everybody that this is not a product that you should expect next week. It’s a proof of principle. It’s done in an academic lab by people with relatively high salaries, made by hand, fibre by fibre …
Artisan-crafted, I think they call it in the food world.
It’s a completely artificial price but we have done some calculations. If you scale up production, even with the current technology, the cost would be reduced to about £15 per kilo, which is still a lot … but we are pretty confident that if you improved that process, we can get that price down even further, to a competitive price with beef.
When you were pressed last year, you thought it might be 20 years to commercialisation.
I think that’s very pessimistic now to be honest. There are a couple of improvements ahead, which we have given ourselves about a year and a half to two years to do. Then we will probably come up with cultured beef burgers. But you need to have regulation in place, so I think seven years is probably a reasonable time frame. We were surprised that at the end of our previous project we discovered that we could actually make a product at that point. Talking to the food technologists and knowing what hamburgers are made from nowadays and what sausages are these days…
It was unveiled at the press conference that your anonymous donor was Sergey Brin. How did he get involved?
He approached me. Well, his investment company approached me. They identified this as a programme that they wanted to support – the idea of culturing beef. Mostly, from an animal-welfare perspective. That was the personal motivation to do this. Then they looked around the world for who is doing this, and they approached a couple of people including me.
That must be the academic dream, money dropping from the heavens?
Pretty much, yeah. It’s a complete new source of money that we traditionally don’t get access to. It was why we came up with the idea of making a proof of concept. We first thought about a sausage, and making a sausage from a biopsy taken from a pig, then presenting it to the press, while the pig was running around on the stage. That was the idea.
So, why did the pork sausage fall by the wayside?
Because Sergey Brin lives in the US.
What? Brin wanted beef ,dammit, so you gave him beef?
Exactly. It was a lucky choice because the environmental issues with producing beef are larger than producing pork. Those are again larger than producing chicken. So, it was in retrospect a good choice.
How much is Brin funding you?
I can’t reveal that.
Is it technically what some might call a “shitload”?
I don’t know what a shitload is, but they are as determined as I am to make this happen.
You’ve said it’s no more technically difficult to produce cow meat than it would be to produce tiger meat or panda meat. So, will the next great culinary innovation be the panda burger?
No, I don’t think so. I had an interesting question when I was in Japan two months ago. They asked me: “Could you do this with whale?” That would make more sense to me. Not to create new products, but to solve a problem. Again, that problem could also be solved many ways. The Japanese could just refrain from eating whale, but we know they won’t.
So, presumably, if there’s technically no barrier to producing tiger, panda or whale meat, could you also produce human meat?
Yes. Are you sure you want to go there? Let’s do this one weird step at a time. I don’t see a particular reason unless our culture really makes a complete shift into … I get this question not very often, but once in a while it pops up and I usually refuse to answer it. Are you sure you want to ask this question?
What about religious rulings? Have the rabbis decided if artificial meat is kosher?
They have actually. It’s all preliminary, but they have thought about it and it could potentially be kosher, even if it comes from a cleft-hoofed animal.
Gosh, so you could have kosher pork?
Yes. If there are sufficient steps between the animal and the eventual product, and if they’re all under the approval of a rabbi then it could be declared kosher. Supposedly.
Do you see a future where you literally have a meat machine in the corner of your kitchen where you culture your own fillet steaks?
I could. To be honest, I don’t think it’s completely realistic: however. Everybody could if they wanted to, as much as everybody can now bake their own bread if they want to, yet very few people do.
Theoretically, would one be able to print any part of the body eventually?
So … Dr Frankenstein, what then?
Well, at the moment this is for medical applications.
So what is Brin’s brain thinking?
Our knowledge of biology, tissue production and integration of tissue in the body is so limited that, if we ever would be able to print a human being, it would probably take another couple of thousand years. It’s easier to design robots to do the same thing. One reasons I like using medical technology for food applications is because, for me, the food applications seem easier. It doesn’t need to function, it just needs to be safe. And I think the societal impact of creating a solution for our current beef production is huge. That’s a big motivator.
[“A young boy eats a hamburger” on Shutterstock.com]