Synthetic meat: What do you think?
Well, would you? Or do you think there’s something creepy or disgusting about eating a hamburger that grew in a lab, and not on a farm?
It’s a good question, with bigger implications than you might think. The question is posed in a cute animation produced by RiAus.
One particular group from the University of Maastricht has made plenty of headlines. Funded by an anonymous individual, they’re using stem cells taken from cows to grow small strips of meat in the lab. They aim to produce the first synthetic hamburger by spring this year.
Benefits to society
For society, synthetic meat has a heap of benefits. To name but two, it sidesteps the animal welfare issues associated with intensive farming of animals and also has the potential to cut our greenhouse gas emissions.
But for all the benefits to be realised, consumers have to buy it — both metaphorically and at the supermarket checkout. The consumer dollar carries great power. And if consumers won’t eat synthetic meat, all the science (and dollars) that continue to flow into its development could be for nothing.
So-called social acceptability, rather than any technical or logistical constraints, has already been identified formally as a key obstacle to the success of synthetic meat.
Aiming for a meatier sensory experience
Drawing a parallel with meat substitutes like Quorn, one study in the Netherlands looked at why meat lovers rejected the substitutes for meat. The researchers concluded that unfamiliarity and “low sensory appeal”, that is the taste, texture, appearance and smell of the meat substitute, were the big barriers to consumption. Essentially, consumers wanted something that looked and felt meatier.
This will no doubt be an issue for the researchers developing synthetic meat. The Maastricht group is producing meat comprised of muscle cells alone and they plan to experiment with the addition of blood and synthetic fat to provide a more authentic sensory experience.
I asked friends and acquaintances what they thought. Interestingly, I got an outright “no” from one educated health professional. For him, mutant hamburgers and DNA tinkering automatically came to mind. And even after explaining the technology involved using stem cells to grow meat, rather than genetic modification, he was still sceptical.
Myself, I’m a tentative “yes.” My conscience struggles with the concept of intensive farming of animals — to the point where I chose to stop to eating meat 11 years ago. Now, in one fell swoop, synthetic meat has dismissed my main reason for giving ‘real’ meat a miss.
So, will we or won’t we? Only time (and maybe some market research) will tell whether we, the humble consumers make or break synthetic meat and reap its benefits.
By Jude Dineley
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