From petri dish to plate: the food of the future

Food innovators consider range of protein options technology has to offer

If you think $30 for a juicy kobe beef burger is expensive, the price tag on a patty cooked in London three years ago would have you reeling.

In 2013, a burger created from stem cells taken from a cow and cultured in a petri dish was served up at a cost of about C$415,000 (250,000 British pounds).

It was the culmination of experiments led by Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

"By all accounts, from what I heard, it was a perfectly plausible but not exceptional burger,'' says Evan Fraser, director of the Food Institute of the University of Guelph, who has spoken with the food critics who sampled the burger. "It's obviously something that hasn't been taken to commercial scale.''

But Maastricht University has created a spin-off company called Mosa Meat in an attempt to bring test-tube meat to the masses, and an Israeli biotechnology startup called SuperMeat is developing a technology to create cultured meat from chicken cells.

Jamie Oliver suggests that science should have a role in rebalancing global problems caused by antibiotic resistance, water displacement and obesity.

But the British celeb chef says that though he hasn't tried it, he doesn't really like the idea of cultured meat. But, he allows, "if it's not messing with nature, genetics, and if it's not kind of got any kind of ill effect or bad impact on the planet ... we should probably be open minded. I think that's probably fair.''

However, outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain offers nothing but disdain for cultured meat.

"Food is supposed to make you happy,'' says the host of "Parts Unknown,'' which airs on CNN. "It's not nutritional substance. It's not filler. It's not fuel. It should be joyous.''

Nevertheless, synthetic meat is just one alternative protein source that's being looked at to allow consumers to feel ethically better about eating meat and also reduce the carbon footprint.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says by 2050 the world will host nine billion people and current food production will need to almost double. Yet land is scarce, oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement of a carbon tax being imposed on the Canadian economy will impact meat costs.

"Agriculture and particularly livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gases so there's an expectation that carbon prices will cause specifically meat prices to rise,'' says Fraser, who also holds the tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security.

Seeking alternatives when costs spiral is nothing new. Consumers quickly shifted to eggs, pork and poultry when beef prices went up over the last few years, says Fraser.

Tofu (soy bean curd) and seitan (wheat protein) are plant-based options that have been around for a while and Canada is one of the world's largest growers of pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans and dry peas).

"We've got to get over this idea that the only way we're going to feed ourselves is with meat,'' says P.E.I. chef and cookbook author Michael Smith.

"The best way to get protein is to eat grains and legumes. That's the way forward,'' says Smith, adding he would not feed petri dish meat to his family. "Eat the things that the meat eats. It should be a treat, not a daily need that we've got to grow in a factory now.''

Two students at the University of Guelph won the national Mission: ImPULSEible award earlier this year for developing a high-fibre meat extender from red lentils, green peas and chickpeas. Called Fiberger, it was devised by Caileigh Smith and Evelyn Helps. It can be added to patties and meatballs to reduce the amount of meat required while increasing fibre and protein. Using the affordable ingredient in protein dishes is also a way to lower family's food costs.

Less popular in this country are insects, though crickets and mealworms are being raised for human consumption as a healthy, nutritious alternative to chicken, pork, beef and fish.

They emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs and need significantly less land and water than cattle rearing, says Jarrod Goldin, president of Entomo Farms near Peterborough, Ont. The bugs are roasted and can be consumed whole or ground into a very fine powder for energy bars, chips, cookies, pasta, bread and protein shakes.

Food labs are also working on synthetic milk products, though Fraser doesn't think these are needed.

"If we are able to produce products of equivalent or better nutrition with a lower environmental footprint and fewer animal welfare problems, then I'd say there's a strong argument to be made for these. But if the environmental footprint is unchanged and they can't make them cheaper, cows are pretty good at producing milk for us.''

He doesn't think the development of a test-tube equivalent sounds the death knell for meat—even when the price becomes low enough to be palatable to consumers, as Post has predicted.

Instead, Fraser sees the traditional livestock industry evolving over several decades as savvy farmers adapt and people become accustomed to eating more unconventional protein products.

Rather than replacing steak or roast beef as a high point of fine dining, Fraser thinks it's more likely the technology will be used for low-cost burrito fillings or chicken nuggets.

Fraser has no plans to give up steak, with its delicious layers of flavours.

"Millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of specific animal breeding have created a product that is to many consumers' minds absolutely delightful to eat,'' he said. "I have a hard time imagining science replicating that.''

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