Cloned burger

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It gives a whole new meaning to the hamburger index. This week the world’s most expensive, and only artificial, hamburger was consumed costing a mere €250 000.

The Big Mac Index is a clever mechanism dreamed up by The Economist magazine to find a more user-friendly way of calculating the relative value of a currency, or purchasing-power parity. The one thing sold in all the countries surveyed is of course that faithful old McDonalds burger, which, as anyone who has had one can tell you, already tastes synthetic.

The flavour appears to mostly come from the sauces, which was why there was a little less enthusiasm at the tasting of this week’s entry into global history, as the synthesised burger lacked fat or additional sauces.

This week’s burger was made by Dr Mark Post from the Maastricht University, using €250 000 donated by Google’s Sergei Brin. An unusual source you might say, but the Google co-founder has been sponsoring cutting-edge tech informally, including his own Google Glasses.

Made from 20 000 muscle fibres that were cultured from cow stem cells over three months, the world’s most expensive burger also took arguably the longest to make. These fibres were all pressed together into a patty that was tasted by a number of high-profile foodies and made, obviously, by a celebrity chef.

Technically, Post argues, the meat is biologically identical to the beef that would’ve been grown on the cow itself. But, this is where the moral issues will begin to tug at people’s culinary habits and prejudices. Would you eat a burger that is scientifically defined as meat (or muscle fibres) if you knew it was grown in a lab?

Fortunately, that dinner dilemma is a few years away for the average consumer, but what is critical and current is the strain humanity’s appetite for meat.

“Cows are very inefficient, they require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein. So we need to feed the cows a lot so that we can feed ourselves. We lose a lot of food that way. [With cultured meat] we can make it more efficient because we have all the variables under control. We don’t need to kill the cow and it doesn’t [produce]any methane,” Post told the Guardian.

The biomass for our livestock is almost double that of humanity itself, producing 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of methane emissions, reports the Guardian. Meanwhile, our meat fixation has consumed 30% of the planet’s usable surface for animals, the paper adds. Compared to the 4% given to directly feeding us humans through agriculture, you begin to get a sense of the problem facing humanity as we grow form our current 7-billion.

At TED Global in Edinburgh earlier this year Andras Forgacs demonstrated the ability to 3D print beef products, starting with leather which he described as a “gateway material”. Made from a single type of cell, it’s two-dimensional and doesn’t have to pass the taste test or get past our prejudices.

Forgacs’ company Modern Meadow produced the leather belt using a biofabrication technique that could be easily used to make meat like Post did. ”Animal products are just collections of tissues. So what if instead of starting with animals, we started with cells,” Forgacs said.

He added: “This isn’t so crazy. What’s crazy is what we do today. We raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and our handbags.” Animals consume 8% of the earth’s water, while producing 18% of greenhouse gases, he adds.

“We’ve already been growing food with cultures to make beer, wine, yogurt. Perhaps biofabrication is a natural evolution. It’s clean, efficient and humane. Perhaps we are ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but there is, literally, no accounting for taste.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail.

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