Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Having a beef with the beef

Were you expecting a stock picture of a burger? This is still scrap meat dish. 
I listen to the podcast The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, a well produced talk show promoting science and critical thinking, featuring a panel of "professional skeptics". In this week's episode, they actually touched on a story that's been making the rounds of social media and news sites: the lab grown hamburger. Or, as the producers at Maastricht University call it, cultured beef - funded by a grant from Google's Sergey Brin. The website is pretty slick, by the way, including some nifty animation.

This was no small feat - well, monetarily. The small patties cost over a quarter of a million dollars to produce - but to what end?

I am disappointed that the Skeptics didn't even question the premise of tissue cultured beef. They rained accolades on this as a major scientific advance, buying into the talking points from the Maastricht PR group, speculating about a future of harvesting meat from dishes, free from the cruelty of having to slaughter and butcher animals, and protecting the environment since cows need large expanses of land. Moreover, they bought into the misdirection, spending time on the disgust issues of eating laboratory produced cells and the flavor, rather than thinking about how this meat got to be where it is.

First problem: the Skeptics actually used the term "peak meat" - that there's an impending shortage of meat due to increasing demand, echoing the talking point that cultured beef technology solves a food security problem. Meat is a dispensable part of the human diet, can come from multiple sources, and beef itself is a luxury meat. Most of the world does not consume beef regularly because of cost. It has a lower cultural impact that you would expect on a global scale - unless you're viewing it from a privileged First Worlder point of view. Moreover, hamburger itself is simply creative use of scraps from the premium pieces of bovine used in beef production. If one were to take the trouble to build scaffolds, with single cell resolution to produce meat, why make an amorphous patty? Why not build a steak unlike any made before? It's like using a 3D printer to make a haystack.

So, what advances in tissue culture production did they introduce? Technologically, they employed few novelties that advance what we already know about stem cell differentiation and tissue culture. Just maintaining the sterile conditions needed to produce the cells can be quite energy intensive, certainly impacting the environment more than a cow or two. And what did they feed the cells to grow them? There's the ugly small print: fetal bovine serum (FBS). To grow animal cells outside of an animal, we have to simulate the environment of being inside the animal. That means a complex mix of growth factors and nutrients - this is provided by the FBS, harvested from aborted fetuses of cows. The efficiency is far from ideal as well - it takes a lot of fetuses worth of serum to grow a single patty of "cultured beef". In a weird sense, we are killing cattle to feed the "cruelty free" cultured beef. Media coverage is quick to handwave this requirement away as some small technical glitch that will be solved eventually, replacing FBS with a sustainable, non animal destroying substitute.  This does not exist, and the quest to make a synthetic replacement for FBS has been going on for decades - and we are nowhere near an acceptable solution. So, no scientific advances made in cell culture production techniques either.

The way I see it, it's a giant publicity stunt. All the focus on taste is a distraction from the very ornate art project. It's no real triumph of science, but it has sucked up enormous amounts of scientific talent and attention. I am not sure if this qualifies as pseudoscience, but the trappings were sufficient to get it past even folks as jaded as the SGU. Face it, for the foreseeable future, the most cost effective way of making beef is with a cow. But we can make it very merciful meat.

Do we really want culturable meat? Why not start with animals that are already easily cultured with minimal complex media requirements? For example, the starfish or the flatworm Planaria easily regenerate themselves when damaged - because they can revert to stem cell states easily and redifferentiate into any tissues required. Can we genetically engineer them to taste and look like beef? Or pork? Or chicken? Then again, I don't see the animal rights activists fighting to protect the lives of planarian worms from cruelty.

Update: Maureen Ogle isn't too impressed either. Specially considering the history of trying to culture meat.

No comments:

Post a Comment