ACT News


From a petrie dish to your plate

THE future of food will arrive in October - but are you ready?

Scientist Mark Post, of the Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is poised to unveil a piece of meat grown in a laboratory petrie dish which is destined to land on a dinner plate.

Plans for the meat - created from cow stem cells - to be made into a hamburger (and rumoured to be cooked by Heston Blumenthal), were discussed at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.

The United Nations estimates the planet's agricultural output will need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 in order to feed the world's population.

The laboratory meat, funded by an anonymous donor, is valued at 250,000 euros ($A320,000), the annual meeting was told.

Australian food futures expert and science writer Julian Cribb believed that by the end of this century these ''cultured meats'' would replace about 50 per cent of meat production from livestock globally.


''The reasons for that are two truths that are very very hard to overcome,'' he said. ''That the world is running out of land and water and energy for agriculture which will make the way we produce food much harder to sustain.

''Also supermarkets all over the world are bringing down the prices of food for farmers and it becomes harder for farmers to produce this food.''

Mr Cribb said steaks from animals would likely cost hundreds of dollars per kilogram in the decades to come and would be viewed as luxury items.

''In 1920s Australia soggy mutton and vegetables were the commonly eaten food, a lot has happened to the Australian diet since then,'' he said. ''Why wouldn't there be dramatic change in the next 100 years?''

Professor Post, who is a specialist in vascular physiology and tissue engineering, shared images of his work at the annual science meeting, showing the strips of muscle tissue from cow stem cells in the laboratory.

But other scientists have been taking another path to reduce the reliance on animals for the food.

Biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine Patrick Brown was attempting to imbue meat substitutes from plant materials with a taste that would win over ''the hardcore meat- and cheese-lovers who can't imagine giving all this up''.

''Animal farming is by far the biggest ongoing environmental catastrophe,'' he said.

That was largely due to the intensive energy and land use required for grazing cattle and raising pigs, he said.

ACT Vegan and Vegetarian Society vice-president Sundara DeSilva said ''cultured meat'' would appear to be more ethically sound then meat from livestock.

''It gets very frustrating with this myth going around that you need meat for iron and protein,'' he said. ''Without knowing all of the science involved in this, it seems on the face of it to be an improvement but it would be better if people didn't eat meat at all because it is unnecessary.''

The Australian Veterinary Association's annual conference held in Canberra last month highlighted the looming challenge of feeding the world's future population of nine billion people.

Virginia Williams, of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, told the conference that a focus on animal welfare would be critical.

''The key to increasing food production from animals will be in improvement of productivity through selectively using genetic technologies to breed for animal welfare friendly objectives such as enhanced disease resistance,'' she said. ''Other techniques will include breeding animals appropriate to their environment.

''Both Australia and New Zealand are already well down the track of genetic improvement that's essential for increased efficiency in livestock production.

''Australia's role in food security in not just about producing food for the world's food-deficit countries, but providing technical assistance that helps them feed themselves and improve their ability to afford food. There is a real opportunity for the veterinary profession to contribute to the feeding of the nine billion while safeguarding animal welfare.''