Keeping the meat in the sandwich

By Gerald Ford

A "little ambitious" is how Federated Farmers vice-president Dr William Rolleston describes plans for the synthetic hamburger.

"There are many sorts of hurdles to overcome. A), to be technically possible and B), to be commercially viable," says Dr Rolleston, the feds' food production spokesman.

In making a case for synthetic meat, Dr Rolleston says the Dutch doctor "probably overstates the land and water use footprint (savings) substantially", with the claim they could be reduced by 90 per cent.

"You can't make protein out of nothing," Dr Rolleston insists.

"To grow cells you generally need animal serum, or expensive product substitutes; these things are conveniently forgotten."

Animal serum is one of a number of "blood-derived products - which you need animals to get".

Dr Rolleston - a sheep and beef farmer - is a contract supplier of animal serum to the pharmaceutical industry.

The alternative to animal material is to use plant materials to feed into the vat containing stem cells, Dr Rolleston says, but this would be much more scientifically complex.

"It's not like you can just cut the grass and pour it into the vat," he says.

"If it was that easy then animals wouldn't have a spleen, and a pancreas and a liver, to create the proteins in the blood that makes the cells grow.

"An animal would be much simpler."

From a marketing perspective, Dr Rolleston recalls the days of TVP, or textured vegetable protein, which "lots of vegetarians" were keen on eating in the 1970s, but which he says "never really took off".

"People either want to eat meat or they want to eat vegetables; eating pretend meat has never been that popular."

With these technical and commercial challenges, Dr Rolleston is a little skeptical of the synthetic burger's prospects.

"What you've got is a €250,000 ($394,000) burger that's got a wee way to go before it becomes commercially viable; I don't think even Bill Gates would want to pay for that."

Professor Richard Archer, head of Food, Nutrition and Human Health at Massey University, does not see "any fundamental impossibility" with the future of synthetic meat.

"There are a string of difficulties, but that's the way the world works. You overcome them."

Archer says the idea of growing 3000 strips of meat protein, together with 200 or more strips of fat, and mincing them together, sounds like "monolayering" or growing a single layer of cells at a time.

"I can't see that being done commercially; you'd have to have massive amounts of area to grow them in."

Other possibilities would be a "planktonic" suspended form of tissue, or using a "3D printer" to create an absorbable structure for cells to grow into - something increasingly happening in the medical field.

Raw materials are also an issue, Archer says, with a "soup of 100 crucial ingredients" likely to be necessary.

Foetal calf serum - a possible nutrient source - would be in even shorter supply if real farming were to be scaled back.

The necessary hormones could be created using "something like a genetically-engineered fungus" - technology which is already commercial, and there would need to be other industries to produce the ingredients at scale.

Archer says the challenge is about "stringing together known technologies".

"Somebody's got to come up with massive funding; it's not infeasible."

A nutrient source, such as glucose from maize, would also be necessary.

"Somewhere, there's going to be a field with tractors going up and down burning fossil fuels," says Archer.

"It's not going to be zero input; it may be more energy efficient."

However, Archer says the end is not necessarily nigh for farming real animals.

"There is always going to be a market for real meat, for rich people.

"Eating a real steak, from a real Angus, raised on real grass in the Antipodes might be what they're looking for."

- Hamilton News

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