Is it just me, or has this summer seen a rise in the number of vanity science headlines?
The latest bit of vanity science is out today, the “grown in the lab piece of tissue”, labelled as a hamburger (US)/beefburger (UK), to be eaten for lunch. The publicity trail has been carefully laid – you just have to follow the hashtag #culturedbeef on Twitter to see the game being played. Many comments, e.g., following the Guardian’s article, raise the issue of cost, something like £200,000. This demonstrates in itself a profound lack of critical thinking. Those who don’t like the idea of killing animals on the grounds of cruelty can simply not eat meat and, in an open society, they can argue the point against meat eating. This is done with some success. The real problem with eating meat is that much of it (but not all – mountain sheep, for example, eat grass) comes from animals eating food humans can consume – grain. So the primary reason for livestock farming, to use the animal and its microbiome to convert the inedible (grass) into the edible has been removed by what could be termed the Fordist industrialisation of food. The cost is ecological: loss of habitat, methane production (a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and, I suspect, greater energy costs too.
I would be interested to see the £200,000 translated into energy costs: how much beef or grain could we produce for the same energy input: culture medium, lab consumables, incubator, commute to work of the lab staff, etc., etc.
No, this will not work. If you want an alternative to animals as a source of protein without turning the world into a desert, use microbiology. This has been tried once, as far as I know, by ICI and RHM, who developed Quorn.
Greater investment in microbiology and biotechnology, which is likely to come through under the banner of synthetic biology, may well produce new systems, fermenting what is waste to produce protein. This we could call an industrial scale cow’s stomach. Developed with chemical engineers on board we would have real science and engineering, a useful end product, a lot less hype and vanity.
Update later on August 5: picked this up from a tweet by @carlzimmer, an article from last year in Discover that is equally unimpressed with the idea of in vitro meat.