Yes, you can make a burger out of human stem cells - but you probably wouldn't want to

After the success of the test-tube burger, Michael Brooks answers the question on everyone in the NS offices lips: "Why not make burgers from human stem cells?"

Sometimes the NS’s offices resound with provocative questions. Last week, it was: “Why not make burgers from human stem cells?”

This is not as ridiculous as it might first seem. It would be the pinnacle of ethical carnivorous living, the only way you could eat prime meat with the full, informed consent of the donor.

It wouldn’t be cheap. The price of a burger cultured from human cells would make the €250,000 feed, created by the Maastricht University researcher Mark Post and formally presented on 5 August, look like a bargain. Human stem-cell culture for medical research is done under the most onerous safety restrictions and following strict protocols. Culturing human cells for human consumption would be just as onerous (and thus expensive) as it is for medical research because we would have to make sure there was no chance the cells could become infected by viruses or bacteria.

Eating other animals is safer simply because the pathogens that make them ill do not necessarily make humans ill. Eat your own kind and you risk unleashing all kinds of hell. That was what the BSE crisis was all about. Ingestion of ground-up cattle brains in cheap cattle feed led to an epidemic of the bovine disease. A similar phenomenon was discovered in human beings in the 1950s. The Fore people of Papua New Guinea were eating their deceased relatives in order to absorb their strength and other qualities. Enormous numbers of them contracted kuru, a disease related to BSE, which killed hundreds of them.

Yet many more Fore women and children died of kuru than men (to the point where the women accused the men of using witchcraft to destroy them). Usually, in the traditional funeral rites, the men were given the prime cuts to eat –muscle tissue –while the women and children got the brains and organs, which harboured disease in far more virulent measure. The Fore men were largely fine, so you could argue that cannibalism is not necessarily a health hazard: it’s eating the wrong bits that kills you.

The real show-stopper for the human stem-cell burger is the bit that most of the media coverage glossed over. Growing those stem cells is not a matter of scattering them in a bed of organic grass. The cells are grown in a cocktail of antibiotics and “fetal bovine serum”. This is blood drawn from foetuses that have been removed from slaughtered pregnant cows.

At about £160 (or three cow foetuses, depending on how you want to look at it) a litre, this is the most expensive part of the whole process. It is also the most distasteful. Experiencing poor mouthfeel from a burger is one thing. Knowing a cow foetus has had its heart punctured and sucked dry in order to grow the meat is quite another.

Medical researchers get through roughly half a million litres of fetal bovine serum a year because its hormones and growth factors are so essential to stem-cell growth. There are problems with it, though. The chemicals it contains can skew the outcome of experiments. In addition, the serum is extracted in a slaughterhouse, with no anaesthetic, and research shows that the foetus probably feels pain or discomfort.

The good news is researchers are looking for replacements. Human umbilical-cord blood plasma, for instance, looks like a good candidate. But considering how few of us out there would stomach a dish containing human placenta, you could bet that there’s not much of a market for any of this.

So, yes, you can have a human burger. But we suspect you don’t want one. Not really.

You are what you eat - or at least you might be. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.