New Stem Cell Hamburger Is Raising Eyebrows and Questions

by Magdalen O’Reilly

The newest research by Dutch scientist Dr. Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology at University of Maastricht, has foodies and animal activists alike raising their eyebrows. The controversy over cloned livestock has been around since Dolly the sheep in 1996. But this newest experiment is raising all sorts of new questions. Dr. Post has begun to use stem cells from a live cow to clone just the muscular tissue of the animal. That’s right, no cow, just meat. (Hope you had a light lunch.) The idea is to eventually be able to produce meat in a lab, without the use of live animals. If Dr. Post is successful, it could change the meat industry forever…as well as a lot of other things. The idea of a meat grown in a petri dish may be unappetizing. But after examining the story a little closer, lab grown meat actually has its advantages.

The research was funded privately by an anonymous source to “…care for the environment, food for the world, and interest in life-transforming technologies,” and this is actually a good point. The meat industry has a tremendously damaging affect on the environment: clear cutting, rivers of manure, and foodborne diseases caused by cramped, unhealthy conditions. The animals also suffer due to overcrowding, and the high demand for meat has increased the usage of inhumane slaughter processes. Lab grown meat may also be more sanitary. Given this perspective, lab grown meat may seem like a positive change. Communities, and indeed whole countries, that suffer from hunger may someday have a renewable source of protein. There would be significantly less need for deforestation, less soil contamination from manure canals, and less overcrowding for the livestock that remain for consumption. But before we bite into that delicious Frankenburger, let’s not forget to assess the downside.

First of all, who really wants to eat lab grown meat? The thought of it invokes a visceral reaction in many. Others see the advantages for feeding developing countries, but would never dream of eating it themselves. Not to mention there are a host of nutritional questions that come to mind. The nutritional value of beef depends on what it’s fed. So are they cloning a corn fed cow, or grass fed? Is this cell grown meat going to have the same amounts of protein and vitamins as natural meat? And if not, will they enrich it? There’s also the obvious question of whether or not meat that was never really a cow would, in fact, taste like a cow.

It’s also unclear if eating lab grown beef will have any long term side effects. If lab grown meat becomes an established practice, the separation between natural food and lab-created food runs the risk of becoming a symbol of class. Will natural food become the new organic? Will lab created food become the mark of poverty? Currently the science is still in its infancy; the team focused on creating a single hamburger. Will this new science change the way we eat and view food? Or will the ‘test tube burger’ be too much for us to stomach?

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email