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Peter K. Dearden

It is hard to avoid the news that last night, a beef burger grown in the lab was consumed by a number of people. The idea was that meat, grown in dishes in the lab, could replace meat grown in animals; last night was a demonstration of the principle.

The beef burger in question was grown from muscle stem cells in plastic dishes, the cells collected and squished together to make a meat-like substance. Consumers of the burger made statements such as “lacked flavor” and “needed some fat”, not exactly a glowing endorsement, but perhaps no worse than most folk’s opinion of the ‘mechanically recovered meat’ often lurking in such burgers.

The cost of this burger has been reported as 250,000 Euros ($425,000 NZ dollars), proving conclusively that growing meat in animals is still cheaper and more efficient.  As an aside, most cell culture experiments use animal serum to help grow the cells, meaning this approach is not animal-free. But is this more than just a publicity stunt; are there implications for New Zealand?

New Zealand is outstanding, to quote my friend Prof Hugh Blair, in exporting sunlight and fresh water. Our primary production systems are geared towards taking water and sunlight, turning that into plant biomass, then converting that into animals, whose products we sell. If we could use solar power to grow cells in culture, could we cut out the middle men, grass and animals, to produce some of those animal products? Is the future of New Zealand farming in cell culture, with the animals going away?

Well, the cost of meat production in vats needs to come down, but it will. The cost of farming is likely to go up, as the costs of fertilisers goes up, environmental mitigation becomes more of a problem and land and water becomes more expensive. Someday they will meet, and vat-meat will be cheaper and more efficient to produce. We must remember that our current role in the world is generally, to make food, and with an increasing world population we need to make more, more efficiently.

So should New Zealand take this route? We have always been world leaders in agriculture research. Our economy is built on our ability to efficiently farm. Is it time for us to be researching this alternative approach? Surely it could make more efficient use of our sunlight and water, perhaps with much less environmental impact.

It’s a question for us all to think about, but currently I don’t think we have a choice. Without sustained investment in the science that will be required to develop this technology we will not be able to implement it. This is not an unexpected scientific development, both science and science fiction has been signalling developments like this for some time. Given NZ’s outstanding history in agricultural research, why are we not at the forefront of this new wave in food production?