Bioengineers in the Netherlands are now growing meat in a laboratory where the future of food is being prepared – in a Petri dish
You wouldn’t normally expect to find a thick red steak quietly pulsating in an oversized Petri dish inside a laboratory. But such is the hype around the team scheduled to produce the world’s first lab-grown cut of meat this October that I can’t help but imagine it. The research being done by bioengineer Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has provoked global headlines about “test tube meat” and fierce ethical and scientific debate. Getting access to his laboratory is about as exciting as it gets in the world of food engineering.
But when I arrive, the home of in vitro meat is quiet – no research assistants racing to turn out joints of beef, chicken or lamb. Instead, Post slowly opens the door to what looks like a large fridge, or a bioreactor. Within lie row upon row of tiny Petri dishes in which float minute fibres of almost transparent meat. I find it rather deflating but Post is excited. “I’ll need about 3,000 pellets of meat to make a hamburger,” he says.
The prospect of being able to create our own meat could herald a food revolution. Humanity’s meat consumption is projected to double in the next 40 years, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Given that 70 per cent of agricultural land is already used for meat production, this could precipitate a food crisis of unimaginable proportions. And that’s not even considering the looming environmental impact as more cows and less rainforest accelerate climate change.
The idea of creating our own meat has a long history. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote in the Strand Magazine that separate parts of an animal would be grown in a lab in the future to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing”. And when it started experiments in the 1990s, Nasa became preoccupied with producing a non-perishable meat for its astronauts – it managed to grow goldfish cells in 2002.