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Is a test tube burger really cruelty free?

Date Published: 06/08/2013

It’s fairly safe to say that most people’s response to a piece of meat grown in a laboratory is going to be a grimace.

The beginning of their end?It conjures all kinds of images of synthetic things in petri dishes and is so disconnected from the reality of animals in fields that it’s hard to entertain that one day it could be a source of actual food. To be frank, seeing the images of this scientific achievement does nothing to lesson the instinctive revulsion that many people seem to feel (not everyone, mind you, we’ve had Twitter conversations with some who would happily tuck in…).

There are so many arguments around this development it could make your head spin. Google founder Sergey Brin, who bankrolled this exercise to the tune of about a quarter of a million Euros, said he did it for animal welfare and he’s supported in that by any number of animal rights groups.

But it begs the huuuuge question: if we were to grow all of our meat in an industrial process (because that’s what it would be at scale) we wouldn’t need the animals that live in our fields. Farmers wouldn’t keep millions of sheep and cows knocking around because they look pretty. They also cost a fortune to feed and keep healthy. So, even if the current ones were allowed to retire and die a happy and peaceful death of old age, that would be the end of them, surely? A few might live in breeding programmes as curiosities, but that raises the spectre of zoos and where is the benefit for them in that?

Yes, that’s a very simplistic take on it, but it’s a fundamental question. We’re not instinctively anti-science and we’re right beside anyone who believes that high animal welfare standards are crucial, that’s why we’re in the business of organics, a system that inherently respects the well being of the animals in it. But as a society we’re a long, long way from being able to artificially produce meat that contains the natural elements that make their way from healthy land, via the animal to those of us who eat their meat. Vitamins and other compounds that we need, such as iron, arrive in our systems through nature’s filters. It’s easy to think that this is the best way for them to get there.

So to make this ‘meat’ work for humans the way real meat does, would we then need to go on to synthesise all of the natural compounds that make meat what it is and combine them into this process? Will we be able to bottle those elements of taste that come from what a French winemaker might call the terroir, the unique combination of the qualities of the land, the climate, the breed and the expertise of the stockmanship that comes through in the finished steak? Not in our lifetimes, one suspects.

So, a new front has opened in the debates about ethics, welfare, the limits or otherwise of science and, quite simply, whether you’d fancy eating a stem cell burger. It’s going to be divisive and, as is the way of human beings, it risks getting ugly – starting with that piece of ‘meat’.