August 5th 2013 was a landmark date for the future of food as we know it, as lab grown meat became a feasible alternative to the real thing. The honour of being the first person to taste a lab grown beef burger fell to Hanni Rützler - of Future Food Studio - at an event held in London. It proved to be a successful day as the synthetic meat passed the taste test, with Rützler commenting that if she closed her eyes she would not have questioned that it was indeed beef.
A success it may have been, but it was still synthetic meat 0.1 as Mark Post - the scientist behind the burger - was quick to talk about plans to improve the taste, texture and also the type of meat available from the lab process, such as steak.
Fast forward to July of this year and Mr Post – in an interview in The Observer - has been talking more about the project, this time expanding on the far reaching implications of a process that could in the not too distant future radically change not just our perception of meat, but also our ideas of identity and reality.
As far as the reasoning behind the undertaking of this program goes, there is no doubt that it is a very sound and attractive proposition. It’s so attractive in fact that the €250,000 cost of making the first prototype burger exhibited last year was paid by Google co-founder Sergey Brin (who continues to fund the project), who said he got involved for animal welfare reasons and at the time of the unveiling had this to say on the project, “When you see how these cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with.”
Aside from animal welfare concerns, there are also on-going issues of supply for the increased demand of meat (especially in countries experiencing economic growth, such as China and India), which has done nothing but show up the lack of efficiency in traditional farming methods as well as increasing the long term adverse effects to our planet because of these methods. Taking all of this into consideration, it makes the quest for viable alternatives not just desirable but essential.
There are though, many other factors besides practicality and it is here that things get more complicated, as a future with synthetic meat also poses a host of philosophical, religious and theoretical questions, some of which Mark Post addressed in his interview. In fact, the philosophical implications of synthetic meat are taken seriously enough that Mr Post explained that he actually has philosophers as part of his team.
One of these philosophical issues that will run alongside this venture for its duration is convincing people that lab grown meat is just as good as the real thing. It is one thing taking all of the factors already discussed into consideration and concluding that something like lab grown meat is needed (indeed, research carried out by Mr Post’s team shows that 70% of people view lab grown meat as a beneficial development), it is quite another to actually then switch to synthetic meat. Right now there is still very much a deep-level rejection simply because it is so far away from what we know and instinctively trust.
Just how far removed it is from what we know is perfectly illustrated by looking at one of the religious questions that is raised, the question being, can synthetic meat be described as Kosher, and whether rabbis had been consulted on the matter. Mr Post’s reply was “They have actually. It's all preliminary, but they have thought about it and it could potentially be kosher, even if it comes from a cleft-hoofed animal.”
That alone should give some indication as to the kind of radical shift in perception and identity that would occur from lab grown meat becoming a normal part of life. Before that day arrives, it would be wise to reflect upon the dramatic changes that will occur in the way we eat and view meat as, once it is here, the likelihood is that slowly but surely the uptake in lab grown meat eaters will grow and grow.
It would also seem wise to frame the changes that are coming within the context of a wider narrative, that narrative being just how fast the way we interact with the world on all levels is changing, including the way we identify ourselves and with other people.
We increasingly live in a digital world, interacting with people through our phones and computers, with face to face interactions, or even voice to voice over the phone, declining. Just a couple of weeks ago the BBC ran an article on their website titled Fighting for the 'lost art of conversation', where they included Ofcom’s findings that we now have more digital conversations then real ones.
This digital world, which we inhabit through the internet, social media and smart phones, is fast replacing our real world identities. Taken to a heightened extreme, our physical bodies will one day just be inconsequential avatars whilst we live within the realms of this digital world (the 2009 film Surrogates has an interesting spin on this). Of course it sounds fanciful, but serious thought and consideration needs to be taken on what future we as a human race are heading towards.
Technology has given us so much, but we need to be mindful of what it takes away, especially in terms of interaction and identity. The essence of human nature is changing and we need to decide whether being constantly plugged into a digital world – and one day even feeding ourselves synthetic meat – is something that we’re happy with.