At Home in the Lab with Mark Post, Father of the In Vitro Hamburger
We’re standing with Professor Mark Post in front of the three biggest bioreactors in the Netherlands, the machines humming faintly and filled with millions of busily dividing cow cells. While the term ‘bioreactor’ might call to mind a gleaming, swimming pool sized tank, the reality is far more prosaic. You’d be forgiven if you thought they were refrigerators.
Post, the man behind the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, aims for no less than a total transformation of the way we produce meat. “My goal” he says, “is to replace the entirety of livestock production with in vitro meat”. Post’s relaxed manner belies the scale of his ambitions: “I dream that, at some point, McDonald’s will approach me to produce all the hamburgers, all over the world”. By raising meat entirely in a lab, starting with stem cells and ending with full-grown muscle, Post hopes to make meat that’s cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable than the real thing. The everyday quality of the bioreactors in his facility acts as a metaphor for in vitro meat itself: a science-fictional achievement that aspires to not only be normal, but natural.
I dream that McDonald’s will approach me to produce all the hamburgers
Old Technologies, New Tricks
Back in Post’s office, strewn with balloons from his latest award, we sit down for a longer discussion about his plans for in vitro meat. Post is confident that we’re witnessing the final days of intensive, factory-style farming. “There is no future for traditional meat” he insists, and the end couldn’t come sooner. Livestock is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, a number that’s poised to keep growing along with the global middle class. Rearing animals for meat is a terrific waste of edible grains, arable land, and clean water, not to mention the fact that emerging diseases often use livestock as a stepping-stone to human populations.
It was not these concerns, however, that funded the €250,000 burger, but one very wealthy and very famous animal lover. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and the ‘mystery’ investor behind Post’s in vitro efforts, is strongly motivated by his discomfort with killing animals for food. Post himself seems a bit perplexed, although happily so, by Brin’s limitless faith in the project. “He thinks that I can do this on my own in two to five years” Post says, “if he gives me enough money. And, basically, he sees no limit in how much money he can give me”. Post himself is more modest about the timeline for commercial implementation. He predicts that within five to six years the cost of in vitro beef will hover around €65 per kilo – less than the most expensive cuts of Wagyu cattle, but still far above what the average shopper can afford.
Often breathlessly described as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘groundbreaking’, in vitro meat is actually a clever repackaging of existing technologies: the cell-culture equivalent of an iPhone. The fact that Post repackages, and doesn’t strictly innovate, is at odds with an academic culture that looks down on celebrity, media attention, and researchers who don’t conduct ‘pure’ research. “I don’t care about my reputation as a scientist, to be honest” Post says. Given the nature of Sergey Brin’s support, this disregard might have to be a requirement. Impatient with the glacial pace of scientific research in universities, Brin has mandated that Post and his team work alone. Post takes a philosophical angle on this results-minded approach to science: “If we transform ugly pieces of technology into something that is very elegant and useful for the planet and for people, then I’ll be perfectly happy”.
Our great-grandchildren may shake their heads over our barbaric extraction of ‘chicken’ from a living animal
The End of the Animal
If Post’s technology becomes commercially viable, it will represent one of the most fundamental changes to the way we approach meat since our ancestors domesticated animals. Our inborn taste for meat drove our evolution and has, in the last few centuries, utterly transformed the face of the earth. Yet Post readily dismisses our 2-million-year-old love affair with meat. In a statement that might be met with skepticism from ranchers and bacon-loving hipsters alike, Post argues that “we don’t extract any happiness from eating meat. We don’t extract any particular nourishing value from it. It is basically the taste, the color, the texture and the emotions associated with it. Eventually, I think, we will completely dissociate meat from its traditional form”. If Post has his way, our great-grandchildren may shake their heads over our barbaric extraction of ‘chicken’ from a living animal, in the same way we now shudder at the idea of bloodletting or human sacrifice.
However, successfully decoupling meat from its animal origin will only be possible if in vitro meat is identical to the real thing. Post is adamant that lab-grown meat is not only no different from conventional meat, but that it is also inherently natural – or, at least, no less natural than anything else we eat. By way of comparison, he emphasizes the gulf between artisanal cheese and the mass-market product we get in grocery stores. Made from the powdered, homogenized milk of hundreds of cows, industrial cheese could not be more different from the small-scale stuffin farmer’s markets. Yet supermarket cheese looks like cheese, smells like cheese, and tastes like cheese, Post points out, so we’re content to call it cheese. As goes cheese, so goes in vitro meat. “I want it to be exactly the same product as the meat that comes from livestock. Then” he adds, “I would have all the reason to call it ‘meat’. How unnatural can that be?”
I have these images of hybrids of flamingos and giraffes, of a minotaur, or a lamb with a rabbit head
The Same Steak, but Different
Post’s own eating habits have informed his attitudes about consumer preference in food and, by extension, in lab-grown meat. He’s eaten the same ham-and-cheese for the last five years – in fact, there’s one sitting on his desk as we speak – but he longs for change at dinnertime. “People want boring” he says, “they want something that is reproducible. They want to know what they are buying”. But, he continues, our need for predictability is tempered by our love of novelty: new foods, new clothes, new ideas.
In vitro meat’s first stab at the sweet spot of ‘predictable novelty’ will be in the realm of processed meat, arguably the worst category of food. Made from the carcass discards of low-quality cows, most of which lived short, miserable lives, there’s little redeeming culinary or cultural value in a factory-farmed burger. “Fifty percent of the meat market is already processed meat” Posts says. “We can make a big step forward if we transform just that part of the industry”.
Within five to six years the cost of in vitro beef will hover around €65 per kilo
Processed meat is the first, but certainly not the only category of meat that in vitro meat will replace. Post is currently working on creating a steak, a far more complex structure that he hopes to build with fat, muscle and a 3D printer. While Post initially dismissed a steak as too ambitious, he’s come around to the belief that a steak actually makes a stronger argument for the merits of in vitro meat than a hamburger does. While a ‘real’ burger consists of the ground-up scraps from all parts of an animal, a steak is the purest form of meat. Rather than replacing the leftovers, Post now aims to replicate the main attraction.
Medicinal Meat and Edible Chimeras
The lamb-tuna steak that will be one of his next projects
The benefits of in vitro meat are so clear that they’re in some ways its least interesting aspect. Instead of thinking about what cultured meat doesn’t do – pollute, harm animals – it’s perhaps more compelling to imagine the new, even avant-garde, products that it will make possible. Though Post’s emphasis on recreating burgers and steaks is decidedly commercial, he’s willing to indulge in some more outlandish ideas. “I have these images of hybrids of flamingos and giraffes, of a minotaur, or a lamb with a rabbit head” he says, going on to describe the lamb-tuna steak that will be one of his next projects. By mixing stem cells from tuna and sheep, it may be possible to create truly hybrid muscle tissue – a Frankenstein-esqueassemblage, no genetic modification necessary. In the realm of the slightly more practical, Post mentions the possibility of “a prescription hamburger that lowers your cholesterol”, and even culturing tiger tissue for traditional Chinese medicine – though Post prefers to distance himself from a practice with “no scientific basis”.
At the end of our interview, Post opens a drawer and pulls out a hard, dried, hockey puck of an object. This brown lump is the world’s first in vitro hamburger, which Post had plasticized for posterity after its grand debut in London. “I was thinking about the possibility of giving it to a museum” he says. “But I’m not sure what kind of museum would exhibit it”.