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

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YouTube announces new measures against extremism – but where do they leave the far right?

Videos by alt-right commentators have arguably radicalised many online. Will Google's latest policies do anything to change this?

Within hours of the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, Tommy Robinson was trending on Twitter. The former leader of the English Defence League accused the Finsbury Park mosque of “creating terrorists” in a series of tweets on his personal account.

More than 17,400 people have now tweeted about the 34-year-old, with many theorising he could have radicalised the attacker who allegedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Muslims” at the scene. At present, there is no evidence that the man arrested by police on suspicion of attempted murder is a fan of Robinson.

“People are saying I’m inciting hate,” said Robinson in a video uploaded to Twitter and YouTube after the attack. “I just tell the facts and the truth and I’m not going to apologise for that…

“If giving you quotes from the Quran that incite murder and war against us is inciting hate, I’m guilty. If telling you all the problematic problems that come from the teachings and scriptures of Islam, I’m guilty. But these are just facts.”

After describing the country as being at “war”, he goes on to say: “Please one person, just one, give me one example of me inciting hate.”

When we talk about radicalisation and terrorism, we are finally to understand that this extends beyond the work of Isis.

Just over a year ago, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist. This morning, Harry Potter author JK Rowling used Twitter to accuse columnist Katie Hopkins of contributing to radicalisation. The New Statesman’s own Media Mole notes how right-wing tabloids incite hate.

In particular, it is now evident how the far right radicalises online. In December 2016, a man fired three shots in a Washington DC pizza parlour that the alt-right (on 4Chan and YouTube) had accused of being at the centre of a paedophile ring.

The internet arguably allowed Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011, to cultivate his extreme views. Alexandre Bissonnette, the white nationalist who murdered six men at a Québec City mosque in January, was described by many as an “internet troll”.

Earlier this year, a report by the Commons home affairs committee accused social media giants of not doing enough to tackle terrorism online. In response to this – and following a series of high-profile brands pulling their advertising from YouTube after it was featured on or by terrorism-related videos – Google, which owns the video-sharing site, has now announced four steps it is taking to fight online terror. But do these reflect the reality that there are many forms of extremism?

Google’s new guidelines speak of “terrorism” and “extremism” in broad terms. This means that videos glorifying or inciting terrorism will be treated the same whether they are from the far right, far left, or pro-Isis organisations.

Google’s four steps for tackling such videos include: using machine learning to identify videos glorifying violence, using a team of human flaggers to identify problematic videos, and using a "redirect method" to send potential Isis recruits towards anti-terror videos. Each of these steps is concerned with content that either breaks the law or violates YouTube’s policies.

The fourth step (or rather the third, as it is ordered in Google’s blogpost) is focused on non-illegal, non-policy violating content. For example, this could include videos that don’t directly incite terrorism, but arguably incite hate, such as those denying the Holocaust.

According to Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, these could also be “videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content”. Rather than being removed like the other offending videos, these will be hidden behind a warning, not have adverts on them (therefore preventing their creators from making money), and will not be eligible for comments. Essentially, as Walker writes, “that means these videos will have less engagement and be harder to find”.

It remains to be seen whether – or how – this will apply to the content of Tommy Robinson. YouTube’s steps will be taken on a video-by-video basis, meaning no far right commentator will be banned outright. Instead, YouTube simply won’t promote any offending videos, meaning they will not appear in their subscribers’ recommended feeds and will be difficult to find on the site.

In this way, Google has remained committed to free speech while doing more to tackle extremism on YouTube. Those like Robinson who claim to just “tell the facts” could arguably now be held to account for their actions. Many on the far right are careful to not explicitly advocate violence. Nevertheless, the loaded language used in their videos could arguably incite hate.

Paul Joseph Watson, a right-wing conspiracy theorist YouTuber with nearly one million subscribers, has never advocated terrorism, but has videos entitled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”.

In the past I have argued that allowing Google and YouTube to censor us in the name of “extremism” and “terrorism” is a troubling trend, but with these new promises, the company has walked the delicate line between the law and free speech. By allowing hateful, but not illegal, content to be hosted on its site and yet restricted from a wider audience, YouTube is taking a stand against extremists of all kinds.

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

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