The announcement that scientists fried up and ate the world’s first lab-grown hamburger patty on Monday represents a giant and praiseworthy scientific development that could produce huge benefits for our world. Many long-term questions remain, however.
At the very least, two big questions have now been dealt with: Can the muscle tissue of an animal actually be grown from stem cells and then engineered into a recognizable meat product? And, if so, would anyone eat it? The people who tried the hamburger say it had the texture of meat but wasn’t particularly flavoursome, possibly because it hadn’t been seasoned.
Flavour issues aside, August 5, 2013, may well be remembered as an historic day. Feeding the world’s expanding population is a grave concern, as is the pressure that such an undertaking places on our planet. If the extremely expensive and time-consuming process that resulted in a single lab-grown hamburger can be transformed into an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way of mass-producing meat protein, there would be obvious benefits: fewer greenhouse gases from the rear ends of livestock; less deforestation for grazing; less need for the monoculture of feed production (although there will still be a need for a nutrient source for the meats cultivated in factories); and, potentially, a cheap supply of protein that could help reduce hunger around the world.
As well, a reduced reliance on traditional meat sources could improve farm animal welfare, as the pressure to produce so much meat so quickly would no longer be there.
There is still a long way to go until we get there, though. Is cultured meat safe for long-term human consumption? Will it appeal to consumers? Will the production process prove to be environmentally friendly? These questions will take longer to answer. But Monday’s news is a step in the right direction for human progress.