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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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