The world press was waiting for it: the presentation of the first ‘cultured hamburger’ in London on August 5 2013. For a select audience, the American journalist Josh Schonwald was allowed to taste it as one of the first: ‘The bite of the hamburger does resemble the texture of meat to some extent, but it is a little softer.’ Food scientist, Hanni Rützler, judged the meat as ‘less succulent’. ‘There was no fat. You can certainly taste the difference with a regular hamburger.’
At that moment, the cultured burger – made from stem cells – cost 250,000 dollars per 100 grams. Not yet ready for the consumer market, but that was not the point. Head of Research, Mark Post (University of Maastricht) particularly wanted to show ‘Proof of concept’: to show that it is quite possible to culture meat that can compete with a regular hamburger.
Not a luxury, because the global consumption of meat is constantly increasing. The world population is growing and more meat is being consumed, especially in emerging economies. That has climatic consequences, since 80% of the agricultural land worldwide is used for livestock. This has resulted in an enormous number of greenhouses and manure surplus. To meet the increasing demand in a responsible manner, revolutionary ideas are needed.
For his work, Post was given the prestigious Word Technology Award in the category Environment. At the same time, there was also criticism, particularly from meat lovers. Connoisseurs suggested that cultured beef is only interesting if it is also suitable for haute cuisine. Quite a remarkable argument: why should only the fine cuisine – that about 99% of the world’s population will never have dealings with - be the yardstick?
Some psychologists involved themselves in the battle: the enthusiasm for meat was all about the need for ‘masculine dominance’. Eating a dead animal reverts back to the hunting instinct of men: whoever ate the most meat, had the best chance of survival. Again, the theory is somewhat one-sided: our behavior is, after all, determined by both nature and nurture.
There was also some criticism from the vegetarian corner. The ‘Vegetarian Butcher’ said the development of cultured beef was ‘too late’, because consumers now had a wide range of vegetarian meat substitutes to choose from. There is an element of truth to this, but let’s not forget who the messenger is: if cultured beef is a success, this is an outright competitor for the Vegetarian Butcher.
The critics all have one thing in common: tunnel vision. Each of them thinks purely from his own perspective, without a helicopter view. That is exactly why many discussions on sustainability ultimately fail. It is not about how much truth there is to each individual argument; it is about what cultured beef can mean for the big picture. And no, it is not a ready-made solution and far from being haute cuisine. But it can be part of the solution. Food is an umbrella concept. Cultured beef deserves its place there.
‘We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium’ (Winston Churchill)
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