London’s Lab-Grown Burger: Changing Perceptions of Modern Technology

On August 5th, the world’s first lab-cultured hamburger was publicly unveiled in London. Composed entirely of muscle sinews grown from bovine stem cells, the burger weighed five ounces and cost more than £200,000 to develop. Twenty thousand individual fibers of carefully cultured cow muscle were combined to form the single patty, which was cooked without salt or pepper for the presumable pleasure of a lucky panel of select taste testers. These testers, upon having had the opportunity to sink their teeth into the most expensive hamburger in history, reported that it was “close to meat” in taste, cake-like in texture and that it was edible, though not particularly appetizing.

High Tech Food of the Future?

Though the majority of onlookers and those following the story as it unfolded were most interested in the burger’s taste, the scientists and researchers involved say that the demonstration was more about proving that their concept was indeed viable than anything else for the time being. They believe that, with the world’s consistently dwindling food supply and growing population combined, we’ll need to be able to sustain ourselves in ways that don’t involve cultivating and slaughtering livestock as a primary means of feeding the masses. Naturally, many social, environmental and animal rights advocates are all about this part. Feeding the hungry and hurting fewer cows in the process? Reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released by cattle throughout the country? These are good things. Great things, in fact, except it’s not entirely that simple.

First, the stem cells used to culture the muscle fibers must be suspended in some sort of medium that provides a safe, clean environment for proper growth. In this case, that medium is fetal bovine serum or, in layman’s terms, blood taken from unborn baby cows. Secondly, the exact amount of waste produced by the three-month culture process for each lab burger is currently unknown. Further research and developments are necessary before questions like these can be answered accurately. That being said, the official estimate as to when this type of product would be made widely available to the public via grocery stores is set at about 10 to 20 years. Proponents of the research foresee a bright future for lab-grown beef as technology continues to advance.

In the meantime, the public is reacting to the notion of a cultured beef future in a number of interesting ways. For some, the idea of eating anything so inherently unnatural is a complete turnoff while for others, a burger like this wouldn’t be any more unnatural than any of the formed and pressed, nitrate-filled, preservative-laden delicacies we enjoy from every fast food place in town. Some vegetarians have even gone so far as to say that they’d try it, were it offered to them, while others still react with derision and disgust at the thought of ingesting the manufactured meat.

Sergei Brin, co-founder of Google and the man who funded the development of the cultured beef burger, believes that some opposition to an idea as innovative as this one is to be expected. “Sometimes a new technology comes along,” Brin says, “and it has the capability to transform how we view the world.”

World Changing Technology: A Comparison

Just as it is inevitable that some will disagree with and outright reject the idea of in vitro meat initially, many have dismissed the potential of the electronic cigarette (and what it could mean for millions of smokers) from the get-go. This is to be expected – as human beings, we frequently resist change and the unknown, opting instead to stick with what we know, even if taking a chance or making a change presents the opportunity for improvement. This isn’t to say that lab-grown meat products are the way of the future for everyone out there, or even that electronic cigarettes are the be-all and end-all solution in every situation. The point of the matter revolves around the fact that test tube meat is being seriously considered as a viable alternative to the world’s growing food supply issues and, for reasons we don’t quite yet understand, the idea has been met with far less opposition than that of the e cigarette. Seriously.

MHRA: No to E Cigs…Yes to Schmeat

Since their U.K. debut in 2009, e cigarettes have experienced great success and acceptance among the smoking population, helping many to rediscover a tobacco-free lifestyle. Unfortunately, the MHRA hasn’t been in the least bit pleased with e cigs, taking nearly every opportunity possible to impede the industry’s growth. So let’s do a quick comparison and get some things straight. We’ll let you take a syringe, stick it in a cow’s shoulder, take some blood and other bodily fluids from there, isolate the stem cells, cultivate them in a very, very expensive lab environment until they develop into muscle tissue and then cook the resulting mass into a burger-shaped thing that doesn’t taste or feel much like a hamburger at all. It costs £200,000. That we can accept. But give the public access to a device that delivers nicotine in the form of vapour without the hundreds of detrimental effects associated with using tobacco cigarettes? Now we’ve got some qualms about that (sincerely, the MHRA). Is it just us or is there a disconnect here?

Synthetic meat and electronic cigarettes: two entirely different consumer goods whose introductions to the world have sparked interesting conversations, heated debates and engaging bouts of speculation. When it comes to how the public and authoritative organizations form perceptions of new innovations, these two can definitely be compared side by side. While the MHRA approved the development of lab-cultured meat back in 1995 (before preliminary laboratory work had even begun), it has yet to accept or endorse any form of e cigarette research, instead actively discouraging the manufacture, sale and use of electronic cigarettes in general because their long term safety and efficacy “have not yet been proven.” Well, to be fair, neither have the ultimate food or health safety of a patty of cow muscle produced in a petri dish. In a world where even the basic staples of our diets are now being revolutionized in increasingly sci-fi-esque ways, why is it that so many still shy away from the simple idea of an electronic alternative to smoking cigarettes, a known cause of death and disease? As a consumer with a stake in the current market as well as that of the future, what’s your take?

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