There is a gigantic disconnect between the promise of lab-grown “meat” tissue as a substitute for animal agriculture and the volume of media coverage.
In the final week of December, media outlets love to rank the most popular, most important and most impactful stories of the year.
I’ll make my list a short one. The category: Most media coverage for the biggest non-story of 2015.
And the winner is . . . the endless valentines to the developers of the test-tube-created, non-meat shamburger, despite the fact that the concept is light years from being marketed, the cost-per pound is in the same neighborhood as refined plutonium and the product’s current organoleptic assessment can summed up in one word: Meh.
So why the hoopla? Two words: Celebrity worship.
Take a start-up such as Beyond Meat, which aims to “eliminate the downsides of the meat industry” by developing plant-based analogs. Once the company began attracting funding from the likes of Bill Gates, Biz Stone (not his real name), the co-founder of Twitter, and of course, our pals at the Humane Society of the United States, the media started drooling over its soy-and-pea-protein faux “chikn.”
Granted, the formulation science and high-tech extrusion systems used to produce the firm’s Beyond Chicken and Beyond Beef are sophisticated enough to adequately duplicate the real thing, although it smacks a little bit like e-vape electronic cigarettes being touted as “so close to the real thing.”
Which is decidedly not the case for the European test-tube “burger” that was cultured from a protein substrate immersed in liquid nutrients and showcased in from of British media by its creator, Dutch scientist Mark Post. The good professor used muscle tissue from a cow that was “fed” with calf serum in a petri dish and cultured to produce a five-ounce bogus burger-like concoction costing about $325,000.
That’s just over $1.04 million per pound, for those who enjoy comparative price shopping.
And guess who forked over all that cash?
Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google.
Look, if I had hundreds of millions of dollars sitting around waiting to be counted — much less invested — like Gates and Brin and Stone, hell yeah I’d be happy to hand over a sack of cash to bankroll some far-fetched scheme that, should it succeed, would add another line to my legacy as a business genius.
Here’s the deal, though.
The developers of faux fillets and shamburgers and poultry-free chicken are unabashedly out to topple animal agriculture. Smart as they are about high-tech gadgetry and online entrepreneurship, they’ve bought into the idea that livestock are the source of the world’s ecological and nutritional problems. As if three centuries of burning coal, oil and gas has nothing to do with the threat of climate change. Or that the problems of food shortages and hunger could be solved if every cow, pig and chicken on earth was eventually slaughtered -- and replaced by test-tube tissue and formulated soybeans.
One other consideration on the marketing side: These so-called breakthrough products are aimed squarely at a segment of affluent, upscale, highly educated consumers — people who have the disposable income that living on veggie alternatives requires and whose concept of food security goes no further than what’s in stock at their local Whole Foods Market.
That’s a problem, because the underlying philosophy of those who advocate for abolishing animal agriculture is that they’re going back to nature, that they’re choosing to eat “natural foods” produced in small-scale, more eco-friendly systems not part of the hated agriculture-industrial complex. They’re suckers for pricey foods, as long as they’re labeled “organic” or “artisanal.”
The future customers for Post’s petri patties won’t blanch at paying jewelry store prices for a lunchtime entrée. Not when their income bracket can afford visits to high-end spas, accommodations at five-star hotels and weekends at McMansion-sized vacation properties.
But how does techno-food straight out of a Star Trek adventure coexist with the Nature-Knows-Best mantra so many anti-meat-eating foodies swear by?
Answer: It doesn’t.
Nor could such manufactured fare somehow provide adequate nourishment for the billions of people dependent on cattle, goats, pigs, chickens and sheep for their sustenance.
The hoopla surrounding fake non-meat is untethered from reality, which makes the media salivation all the more distasteful.
Predicting that test-tube concoctions could replace animal agriculture as a means to effectively feed the world is like pretending that iPads could end global illiteracy, if only someone could make enough of them to replace the world’s supply of blackboards and chalk.
Formulating nutritional products from meat and plant protein? Great idea that ought to be supported by every food company and academic research institute on earth.
Imagining a laboratory capable of culturing enough “cellular tissue” to replace cattle, pigs and poultry?
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.