Do you want test-tube fries with that?

Sergey Brin, the brilliant founder of Google, put up a boatload of money for the world’s first  hamburger that did not come directly from a cow: $330,000 U.S., in fact.

How’d it happen? Well, a Dutch scientist, Mark Post, proposed the idea. The concept is reasonably simple. Take muscle stem cells from a living cow (in this case, cells from both a Blanc Blue Belge and a Blond Acquitaine, both raised on organic farms). Culture the cells in a nutrient-rich broth, where they will increase in numbers sufficient to form a kind of tissue. Attach the tissue to a basic structure (like a scaffold), and stimulate with electricity so that the tissue grows into strips of bovine muscle. Grind them up, shape a nice little burger together, and cook – voilà, a genuine test-tube burger!

No fat, of course, and as a result nearly tasteless (according to those who took the first bites), but what a heartwarming victory for global warming activists, food rights activists, and animal rights activists everywhere. The San Jose Mercury News article on this historic meal quotes Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder, who was “…so excited, I could jump for joy…We have Champagne corks going off all over the place.”

The question is, why?

Mark Post, a cardiovascular physician who already grows blood vessels for bypass grafting, came up with the idea because he’s concerned about global warming, and the contribution that methane-producing cows make to greenhouse gases. Post has a vision of future supermarket shoppers seeing meat from animals (with a cruelty sticker accompanied by an eco sticker to remind them of the downsides) side by side with ethically lab grown meat.

Sergey Brin funded the project because he is concerned about animal cruelty and global warming. Like many others with the praiseworthy goal of the humane treatment of animals, his awareness of the truly appalling conditions in which much of our livestock is raised and slaughtered. By helping get lab-grown meat off the ground, it would be possible for meat-eaters to continue to eat the food they like without having to kill animals after raising them inhumanely.

Let the spin begin

On the beautifully done propaganda video (which you can see at both the Mercury News site or on the slick PR site for lab grown, er, cultured beef), you will hear other intelligent voices in addition to Brin and Post: Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, and Ken Cook, Co-Founder of Environmental Working Group. They argue persuasively that although humanity’s evolution is inextricably linked to meat-eating (Wrangham), our planetary demise may be hastened by trying to provide meat to an additional 2 billion people in the next 50 years, an increase of 73 percent (Cook). Both suggest that lab-produced meat makes sense, as it addresses both issues effectively.

The choice of the proposed product’s name, “Cultured Beef,” is brilliant. The word “culture” is a rich one, with connotations of, well, culture: the aesthetic arm of civilization, the thing that separates man from animals, the quality defining individual civilizations; who doesn’t want to participate in culture? Another contemporary use, growing in popularity (and which I’m sure was considered) is that describing probiotic foods – cultured vegetables, cultured dairy. The fact that such foods are enhanced beyond the base ingredients cannot have escaped the spin machine that needs to be called into action to make cultured stem-cell burgers acceptable.

Disturbing facts called out on the Cultured Beef site (drawn from a 2006 paper produced by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and quoted in Wikipedia) almost make me want to root for the concept: 70 percent of all agricultural land is dedicated to the production of livestock to meet current production levels. CAFO (concentrated animal feedlot operation) farming is estimated to produce roughly 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than all global transport combined.

But the helpful FAQ lets us know that hope is at hand! Cultured Beef is all natural – no unnatural chemicals added, and it’s the same as beef, “just grown outside the cow.” Cells from just one real cow could generate 175 million burgers, an amount that would require nearly 450,000 actual cows. And you’ll be happy to hear that stem cells would be harvested only from cows on non-intensive farms, supporting animal welfare.

What about those depressing facts?

Well, to get to 70 percent of agricultural land, you have to include the land dedicated to the commodity crops that feature so prominently in CAFO diets: corn and soy. Loaded with pesticides, grown on land that is depleted and needs constant infusions of chemical fertilizers, this land is pretty much dead. And CAFO farming, consisting of millions of cows crammed together to stand in conditions ranging from merely inhumane to downright cruel, with its reliance on a diet that results in those millions of cows developing truly dreadful indigestion, absolutely results in floods of methane from miserable guts unable to digest the food with which they are filled (and yes, grass-fed cows do emit methane, too, but studies show that there is about 20 percent less, and the grasses upon which pastured cows graze soak up carbon like a thirsty sponge, making a very nice offset).

So, yeah, the state of agriculture is a sorry one. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we actually care about our own health and that of the planet, it seems like we have a responsibility to help motivate and implement change without resorting to the lab to provide our animal protein.

Spinning the argument by limiting the choices

In the video on Cultured Beef, Brin presents the three options he believes we have: for the world to become vegetarian (which he acknowledges is unrealistic); for us to ignore the whole issue of climate change and land use as related to meat production; or for us to do something new – by which he means lab-grown meat.

But what about a fourth way: making a transition away from CAFO production, with its reliance on vast monocultured crops (corn and soy in particular), to traditional mixed-use farms as well as beef (and meat from other ruminant animals) raised on land not suitable for farming but perfectly suitable for rotational grazing? As Judith Schwartz points out in Cows Save the Planet, properly managed cows build rich soil that supports a diverse array of grasses and other plants that absorb carbon at a magnificent rate. Lierre Keith, in her well-researched book, The Vegetarian Myth, notes that while a pine forest can build about 1/16 of an inch of topsoil in 50 years, a properly managed farm, with livestock rotated on pasture throughout the year (like Joel Salatin does at Polyface Farm in Virginia), can build an inch per year. This is how we slow global warming – not by eliminating pastured animal foods from our diets.

Where flavor is needed, technology prevails

Buried in the downloadable FAQ from the Cultured Beef site, we learn that the “food technology methods that will be used to add taste and texture are food industry standard and internationally recognised.” Hmm. I’m not a huge proponent of adding food industry standard taste and texture; don’t know about you, but I much prefer that taste and texture come from the actual food I’m eating. There is no clarification here, but I did a little research on the ways commercial beef processors enhance taste and texture of the burgers they sell. Since they’re industry standard, of course, this would kind of get around that “no unnatural chemicals added” issue.

In searching for possibilities, I ran across one professional tome, Applied Biocatalysis, discussing the addition of microbial transglutaminase (an enzyme derived from extracted, filtered, centrifuged, and chromatographed plant tissue) to processed meat for “improved elasticity, texture, taste and flavor.” The researchers at Auburn University came up with another way to make too-lean beef lip-smacking good, and it’s affectionately called “AU Lean”: add carrageenan, hydrolized vegetable protein, salt and water, to make lean beef taste just like the fatty stuff. And there’s a wonderful process with the trademarked name Fressure™ – Cargill uses it, so it must be good! Essentially, it treats packaged patties with a high level of pressure to disrupt the cellular activity of potential microorganisms and pathogens, giving that burger amazing long shelf life. And on and on and on; there are many ways to enhance flavor and texture and other qualities that are “industry approved.” But I don’t know if I want them on my plate, or in my body. Which brings us to another issue with meat grown in a petri dish.

Is lab-grown meat healthy?

Food in general, including meat, is much more than the blending of chemical ingredients into a balanced nutritive substance. This is the same kind of derivative thinking that gives us “food” for cattle with the “correct balance” of protein, carbohydrate, and fat – with virtually no thought given to the source of those macro-nutrients. That protein can come from chicken feathers or soybeans, the carbs from grain middlings or doughnuts past their sell-by date. This is the separation of food from reality, and unfortunately, this approach makes it perfectly logical for someone – like this cardiologist who grows tissue for blood vessel grafts – should apply it to human food as well. Since steaks are muscle meat, just take some muscle cells and reproduce them under controlled circumstances! Of course – it’s so simple, it’s a wonder nobody has done it before!

But real meat (like real anything) is much more than a bunch of muscle tissues grown on a scaffold. The animal from whence that meat derives grew its muscles and every other part of its body by digesting and transforming grass. It had blood coursing through those muscles, and fat tissues surrounding them; as a result, the cells themselves are full of enzymes, nutrients (including B12, Co-Q-10, folate, calcium, zinc), essential fatty acids (when the cows do eat grass, almost equal amounts of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and a slew of other nutrients that would be completely absent in pure muscle tissue grown in the absence of the animal to which it originally belonged.

Real meat is food that grows out of a graceful, ongoing dance with the environment in which it is raised, which has a sense of place, which provides nutrients in a bioavailable matrix designed to nourish our bodies. And wise people will eat more than the muscle meat – they’ll eat the bones (cooked into nourishing broth, or roasted for their rich marrow), the organs (sacred to our ancestors, who ate them in preference to the muscle meats, which they considered more suitable for their canine companions), and of course the abundant fat (rich in fat-soluble activators that assist a slew of important physical processes occur, as well as allowing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins so necessary to health).

There is also the problem that too much lean protein can deplete the body of its stores of vitamin A, as well as causing a negative calcium balance*. Some tribes of Native Americans, as well as early settlers in North America, identified a condition they called “rabbit sickness,” a wasting condition brought on when large animals, rich in fat, were scarce, and super-lean animals (like rabbits) were eaten in desperation; the abundance of lean meat without the proper ratio of fat destabilized the metabolism and caused serious problems.

As Dr. Wrangham notes, we evolved into humans in part because we hunted, ate, and shared meat with our tribe. Its nutrient density allowed our brains to grow, allowed societies to flourish, allowed culture to develop. There’s that word again: culture. The thing that makes us human.

How to make a real difference

Don’t buy into the spin that lab-grown meat will save the planet. Instead, support those farmers and thinkers and movements that encourage a movement back to proper livestock management. Check out Judith Schwartz’s book. Read Lierre Keith. Check out the groundbreaking work of Joel Salatin and Allan Savory and the concept of holistic herd management. Check out the Weston A. Price Foundation website. Then share what you’ve learned.

Global warming is an issue. The way we raise most of our meat is a disaster. But we don’t have to support CAFO farms, and we don’t have to accept artificial workarounds to solve the problem, either. We can make a difference, and the time for us to start making such a difference is now. The future of our planet – and our plates – demands it.


This post is linked to Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday. Check it out here!

*Adventures in Macro-Nutrient Land, Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, Wise Traditions, 2003

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