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From Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph: It’s not playing God to grow a beefburger in the lab – nor is it unnatural to eat it
You can’t move for expensive burgers in London at the moment. Around every corner there’s a swanky little place that calls its burgers “steak haché” and charges you £11 for one with blue cheese and caramelised onion in a brioche bun, and then another fiver for the chips (“double-fried in goose fat”, probably). But even the very fanciest might raise their eyebrows at the £220,000 it cost to serve one burger in the capital yesterday.
Prof Mark Post, a researcher at the University of Maastricht, has spent several years developing a technique for growing meat in the lab. Yesterday, he unveiled the product of his work: a petri-dish beefburger, grown from stem cells. Genetically, it is beef, but it has never seen a cow. The eye-watering price tag represents the cost of the whole project (Google’s Sergey Brin was picking up the bill). The shamburger was cooked via a live video stream on the internet, and was pronounced as basically meat-like (if lacking salt and fat) by a panel of chefs, who for some reason ate it without ketchup.
There’s something a bit distasteful about doing science by press conference like this, but otherwise this should be a source of unalloyed joy for those of us, like me, who love a good chunk of meat but feel a nagging disquiet knowing that a conscious being had to be bred and then killed in order for me to eat it. Likewise, it should be pleasing to those of us, also like me, who are uncomfortably aware that growing crops, feeding them to animals, and then feeding the animals to humans is a sadly inefficient way of using farmland.
What’s more, if stem-cell meat takes off, it will speed up research in related areas, which could lead to us being able to grow human organs for transplant, thus saving lives. And while the price is prohibitive now, the experience of other areas of technology suggest it won’t be for long: in computing, Moore’s Law suggests that prices halve every 18 months, and genetic research is getting cheaper at a similar rate. Meat-eaters and vegetarians alike should be rejoicing.
And, in the main, they are. The animal-rights ethicist Peter Singer has said that after 40 years of vegetarianism he is looking forward to eating a vat-grown burger. Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford, agreed, saying that we have a moral duty to support this research: artificial meat is better for animals and the environment, and could one day be better (and cheaper) for us. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), the reliably nutty and usually naked animal-rights extremists, have got on board, saying that it will spell the end of abattoirs and factory farming.
There have been a few voices of disapproval. A chef, Sybil Kapoor, told Radio 4’s Today programme that it seemed unnatural, and that it would have health risks. (It won’t, for the record, or at least it won’t have any health risks that beef doesn’t. It’s just beef, grown in a sterile environment.) Someone quoted on ITV News called it “a bit Frankenstein”. But in general, the response has been positive.
That’s interesting and instructive, because one of the greatest obstacles to technological progress, especially but not only in areas such as food and medicine, has been the sense of “ickiness”: the sense that what we’re doing is in some ill-defined sense against nature, that we’re playing God, messing with things that man shouldn’t. When Edward Jenner vaccinated people against smallpox using cowpox, there was a widespread outcry, with newspaper cartoons showed patients turning into cows. Genetically modified food is seen as “unnatural”, and a significant minority of people believe that using a fish gene in a tomato will make the tomato taste of fish. The perceived dangers of nuclear power far outstrip the real ones; cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, even blood transfusions and transplants have met opposition from people who think that we ought to leave well alone.
It would be nice to think, after the Frankenburger was revealed, cooked and eaten before an internet audience that seemed vaguely interested but entirely failed to wave any pitchforks or burning torches, that public opinion has moved on. After all, what’s “natural” and what’s not is entirely arbitrary: very few people would say that burning food with fire is “unnatural”, but no other species would do it. Yes, fire happens in nature, but so does nuclear fusion.
Our sense that species are eternal and fixed, which lies behind our discomfort with genetic modification, flies in the face of the evolutionary reality that they are in constant flux. What people think of as “natural” seems to be calibrated by what was technologically feasible when they were growing up. (Or, as Douglas Adams put it, things that exist when you’re born are part of the natural order; things that are invented before you turn 35 are exciting and revolutionary; things invented after you’re 35 are unnatural and wrong. See, for instance, the ongoing backlash against video games and the internet.) If humanity is starting at last to get over its strange conflation of “natural” with “good”, we’ll all be better off for it.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into a one-off event. Either way, it’s good news for meat-eaters. And it’s especially good news for the posh burger bars of London, because in a few years’ time, as the cost of stem-cell meat plummets, they’ll be able to grow whatever meat they like, without any ethical concerns at all. Lightly grilled panda patties on a wholegrain ciabatta bun with piccalilli and farmhouse cheddar, anyone? That’ll be £11, please.