Inside the meat lab: the future of food

Dish of the day: breeding and mutating food species may be the only convincing plan anyone has for feeding the world Photograph: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Dish of the day: breeding and mutating food species may be the only convincing plan anyone has for feeding the world Photograph: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

With billions of mouths to feed, we can’t go on producing food in the traditional way. Scientists are coming up with novel ways to cater for future generations. In-vitro burger, anyone?

The future feast is laid out around a cool white room at Eindhoven’s University of Technology . There is a steak tartare of in-vitro beef fibre, wittily knitted into the word “meat”. There are “fruit-meat” amuse-gueules. The green- and pink-striped sushi comes from a genetically modified vegetarian fish called the biccio that, usefully, has green- and pink-striped flesh. To wash this down, there’s a programmable red wine: with a microwave pulse you can turn it into anything from Montepulciano to a Syrah. For the kids, there are sweet fried crickets, programmable colas and “magic meatballs”. These are made from animal-friendly artificial meat grown from stem cells: packed with Omega 3 and vitamins, they “crackle in your mouth”. Yum.

None of this is quite ready to dish up. The meatballs at the Eindhoven future food show are made from Plasticine; the knitted steak, appropriately, from pinky-red wool. But the ideas aren’t fantasy. Koert van Mensvoort, assistant professor at the university, calls them “nearly possible”. Van Mensvoort – who is also the brains behind nextnature.net, a must-see website for technological neophiliacs – put his industrial design undergraduates together with bio-tech engineers, marketing specialists and a moral philosopher, tasking them to come up with samples of food that is, technologically, already on our doorstep.

The truth, though, is that artificial steak is still a way off. Pizza toppings are closer. The star of the Dutch research into in-vitro meat, Dr Mark Post, promised that the first artificial hamburger, made from 10bn lab-grown cells, would be ready for “flame-grilling by Heston Blumenthal” by the end of 2012. At the time of writing it is still on the back burner. Post (who previously produced valves for heart surgery) and other Dutch scientists are currently working over the problem of how to turn the “meat” from pieces of jelly into something acceptably structured: an old-fashioned muscle. Electric shocks may be the answer.

What's cooking? An example of 'nearly possible' fantasy food. Photograph: Observer
What’s cooking? An example of ‘nearly possible’ fantasy food. Photograph: Observer

This quest is key to the future of food. It’s not what can be done but what we will accept. Some scientists warn that trying to copy the meats humans are used to is futile – another symptom of our ignorant and unsustainable nostalgia about food. “It’s simplistic to say ‘natural is good’, to reject globalisation and hark back to a mythical past when food was still ‘true and honest’,” says the Dutch intellectual Louise Fresco, a former head of food- innovation research and an advisor to the UN.

“It’s the default thing to do, to try and replicate what you know,” warns van Mensvoort. “It’s not how you innovate. We started with horseless carriages, but in the end what we got was cars. ‘Natural’ is the biggest marketing scam, and the most successful, of all.”

The technological problems of producing the new hi-tech foods are nothing compared to the trouble the industry is having with the consumers – the “yuck factor”, as the food technology scientists across the world like to put it. Shoppers’ squeamishness has turned the food corporations, from whom the real money for R&D will have to come, very wary, and super-secretive about their work on GM in America. There’s energy behind these projects because of the certainty that 9 billion human beings cannot possibly go on eating food, especially meat, produced in the traditional way. The planet can’t take it. Dutch food companies need to cater to a population that eats more pork than any other in Europe, but they do not publicly fund Koert van Mensvoort’s work at Eindhoven, or any of the artificial-meat research. That’s done by the Dutch government.

Van Mensvoort is contemptuous of the food corporations’ nervousness, especially when so much is at stake, pointing out that “if the industry sees a word like ‘pharmaceutical sushi’ they say, ‘You can’t put our name near that!’ They’re afraid.” I have first-hand experience of this: at a scientific conference on food and nano-technology (engineering at sub-molecular level) an executive from Europe‘s biggest food company begged me not to print the fact that he was there.

It’s all Monsanto’s fault. “It was a historic mistake that GMO started with herbicides, and that the US government gave the corporations the freedom to introduce them,” says Professor Fresco, who wants to feed not just the rich, but the hungry all across a future world of 9 billion people. Monsanto, the Dr Frankenstein of our time, certainly generated appalling publicity around its callous and careless marketing of GM pesticides in the United States and in India. The public‘s subsequent collapse of faith in bio-tech science, says Fresco, has not just put the brakes on new foods for the rich world. It’s also damaging the fight to end hunger. Hundreds of millions of Africans who depend on an unreliable staple, such as cassava, are deprived of the technology that could make it disease- and pest-resistant. GM rice could raise productivity by 40%.

“African scientists say, ‘Don’t you dare bar us from this technology,'” says Fresco. There are risks, she agrees, but she believes we’re better able to monitor them than ever before. Though the scientists in Holland avoid the term <strongclass=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>GM, the qui

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