Beware of the Frankenburger

Beware of the Frankenburger

With GM crops beginning to grow in popularity, is in-vitro (IV) meat really the next link in the food chain? Olena Pfirsch investigates.

Food depletion will soon be a major concern for the planet as we begin to run out of animals to eat and the population increases. The vegetarian lifestyle may remain intact as genetically modified crops allow us to grow more, and bigger fruits and vegetables, but what about the animals? Are cows and chickens going to be on the endangered species list right under Bengal tigers? IV meat seems to hold the answer.

IV meat, also known as cultured meat, is made in a laboratory growth medium from animal muscle cells. The first Frankenburger was created back in 2013 by Dr Mark Post, of the University of Maastricht, and his team, and was brought out of the lab to be tested by the London general public. The overall view was lacking in enthusiasm to say the least, as many thought the burger missed out on flavour and was a poor imitation of the real thing. Red beet juice and saffron had to be added in order for it to look more like meat.

There are public uncertainties over the consumption of IV meat. A Guardian poll reported that only 46% of the public would eat it. Catherine Oates, a first year Physics student and vegetarian, said “[IV meat] would probably be avoided at the very beginning due to general fear of scientific tampering when it comes to food. But I think people would come around quickly as soon as they realise it’s safe and less fatal to animals.”

Recent reports have exposed some food companies as it has been found that 10% of the vegetarian products they produce contain animal meat and two percent even contain traces of human DNA. Can we really trust what is going into our food? By growing meat we could theoretically control the nutritional content of the food (fat content in particular), therefore helping curb the obesity crisis and make for a healthier lifestyle. Not to mention also improving the quality of life of some animals. Cultured meat is gaining popularity with animal rights campaigners, such as PETA, as, if this method of meat manufacturing is invested in, cows, pigs, and chickens will no longer need to be bred for slaughter.

But is IV meat real meat? It’s not made from the traditional methods of rearing cattle but it is still made from animal muscle cells: the same as we are already eating, just grown in a lab and not a field. If we call a genetically modified carrot a carrot, should we call ‘IV meat’ meat?

Although this laboratory method will pose no threat to the more traditional farming of crops, fruits and vegetables, farmers are more than likely to see a loss in profit and be out of work due to a decreased demand for actual animal meat. Further economic effects will be seen as money will be needed to build the facilities to generate the cultured meat and also further research is need to perfect the meat for commercial sale. Dr Mark Post estimates that it could take up to 20 years before mass production would be possible.

With people like Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, helping to fund the £215,500 project, many more may soon be interested in contributing due to the potential improvements to animal welfare and the environment. The greenhouse gas emission from the lab process is 96% lower than farming figures. It also uses 99% less land when compared with the rearing of cattle. With this data showing how cultured meat is environmentally better than conventional farming, it’s no surprise people are already on board the Frankenfood bandwagon.

However questions still remain. Is IV meat going really the answer to stopping our food depletion? Is it going to help to feed the rapidly expanding, overcrowded population? Will it help us to become healthier people? These questions will probably be answered in the next decade or two, but for now we can chomp down every naturally made burger we can (within reason of course) and hope that we can still keep the real turkey for Christmas.


Featured image credit- Keith Weller via Wikimedia Commons

Olena Pfirsch