Would you eat a synthetically-made burger?

Professor Mark Post discusses the importance of the artificially cultured meat industry at an event held by Global Development Soc and DU General Science Soc


“Cows are inefficient food producers. In fact, they’re obsolete.”

Yesterday saw Trinity Global Development Soc and DU General Science Society come together to host Professor Mark Post, Chair of the Department of Physiology at Maastricht University and pioneer of the artificially cultured meat industry. Speaking about global agriculture, meat consumption, and climate change, Post spoke enthusiastically at this successful event about cultured meat as a solution to our unsustainable, and yet rapidly growing, agricultural industry.

The discussion was brought to start by Post inquiring as to who in the room was vegetarian or vegan. He followed up by announcing he, himself, is not. Despite the increasing evidence indicative of the detrimental impact that the agricultural industry is having on our environment, people will continue to eat meat. It is that very body of people who refuse to compromise their diet that spurred Post to seek an alternative solution to the agricultural time bomb; a solution that physically manifested itself in the form of an artificially made hamburger.

“Cows are inefficient food producers. In fact, they’re obsolete.”, Post stated, relaying the statistics on how much land they occupy, their food intake, and their methane gas emissions. But despite a slight decrease in meat consumption in Western nations, this has been offset by the mass increase in countries such as India and China.

It was Winston Churchill who originally posed the idea of growing meat. With the existence of stem cells not yet discovered in 1931, this theory wasn’t to come into fruition until 2013. Aired on live television as “a hybrid between a press conference and a cookery show”, the world’s first synthetic hamburger was cooked and eaten by two volunteers – who did, in fact, survive. From here, a worldwide discussion begun.

Post delved into the scientific intricacies of creating a cultured hamburger, explaining that it begins by extracting stem cells from a cow via a small sliver of muscle, which are then allowed to expand to create a muscle fiber. With 10,000 muscle fibres, Post and his team finally had a hamburger on their hands. Despite the original hamburger valuing in at $250,000, Post declared that cultured meat, if mass-produced, would cost $65 per kilo.

Speaking matter-of-factly, Post revealed that the true value of this product is that it is sustainable, manufactured from ingredients of seemingly unlimited supply. It serves as an environmentally-friendly acknowledgement of meat-eaters. From a 25,000-litre tank, there would be enough meat for some 40,000 people. That is a 90% improvement on the current quantity of land and water used in the production of a similar hamburger.

Following his persuasive presentation of the facts, Post went on to address the underlying deterrents for those who oppose the production of artificially-created meat. Pointing to an enlarged image of Clonakilty sausages, he asked the crowd if anyone had ever eaten them before, and if so, what exactly is in them? “That doesn’t look like meat to me”, he furthered, declaring that many people aren’t aware of what their food is actually composed of; so why is this suddenly an issue for cultured meat?

He continued on to say that there is an illusion of control over how our food is produced, which, for many, doesn’t extend to meat that is manufactured in a lab. A mistrust surrounds technology and they way in which it can be utilised to our advantage. There is also a cultural issue, stemming from the egoism with which we slaughter and consume our animals. Post maintained that these factors can be overcome with time, as a gradual trust of cultured meat is established.

“This is not to be confused with genetic modification”, he reminded the crowd. He maintained that once the idea of cultured meat is accepted, there is potential to make it healthier and to expand the product range.

“A hamburger for $250,000 isn’t marketable..”, he admitted, “but by 2020, that same hamburger would cost $11”. He stressed that with technological developments and increasing investment in the sector, the price of cultured meat will fall. He then divulged that artificially cultured hamburgers will be introduced to the marketplace in three years time, specifically in high-end restaurants and specialty stores, though he maintains that they’ll become cheaper with time.

“If it takes off, it [will] erase the current meat industry, not just in parts but in its entirety”, Post affirmed, elaborating that the choice to consume meat that is the same in quality, but better for you, the environment, and animals, is “a no-brainer”. If the initiative fails, demand will continue to rise along with an increase in pressure on our resources should producers strive to meet growing demand. “The 800 million people undernourished would also increase”, Post stated. “That’s my biggest fear”.

As Professor Mark Post’s compelling talk came to a close, it is likely that those in attendance will have walked away from the GMB with a fresh and informed outlook on this small, but growing industry. And so the question remained: should artificially-made meat truly succeed in replacing the agricultural industry as we know it, will vegetarians and vegans be able to return to eating meat in the future?

“I would advise against it”, Post voiced. “This is a technology to combat the hardcore meat-eaters. It’s so we don’t ruin the planet with the consequences of meat production”.