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27 May 2017updated 31 May 2017 12:06pm

Why we’ll all have to stomach the hi-tech future of food

Lab-grown meat and veg may be unappetising, but our planet's survival may depend on it.

By Stephanie Boland

Imagine: you’re out shopping with a friend and you decide to stop and get some lunch. Just off the high street, you spot a restaurant advertising a burger deal and decide to go in. On the menu, however, you see something strange: all the items are apparently made with “future food”. Some sort of hipster gimmick?

You order your burger, and the waitress brings it over. It looks like all the other burgers you’ve eaten in your life, but as the waitress talks you through your meal, you realise that this restaurant is unusual.

The meat, she tells you, is made from lab-grown beef. The vegetables that sit on top of it have been produced in a temperature-controlled lab, under LED lights. “Five times faster than outdoors!” your waitress beams. Oh, and the chips are made from irradiated potatoes – but that’s nothing new: it’s been legal to sell irradiated food in the UK since 2009. “It stops the potatoes sprouting,” she explains.

If suddenly you feel like you don’t fancy the burger much, you’re not alone. Even the most forward-thinking consumer can find that the idea of lab-produced meals sticks in the throat – even if we understand, logically, that food technology can be a good thing.

According to a recent government study, only half of us believe we “will have to make more use of technology in food production”.

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The process of growing meat provokes particularly strong reactions. It involves taking a small quantity of muscle cells from a living animal, which are then cultured in a mixture designed to support their growth. Done right, one muscle cell can turn into one trillion strands of muscle tissue.

Yet we may not have time to be squeamish. Studies suggest that a high proportion of greenhouse gases – anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent, depending on the research – is produced by the meat industry.

“This is really something that needs to be done in the next decade,” Shaked Regev, of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF), tells me. “This is a critical point for humanity.” The MAF is a start-up developing what it calls “clean meat”. Regev, the foundation’s director, became involved in this area of research partly because he believes we urgently need to create new food technologies.

“This and other green initiatives are imperative. Some people say it’s for our grandkids – I say: I’m 27, and I’m going to see significant damage from climate change in my lifetime.”

Researchers in the field are confident that the public can overcome its distaste for lab-grown meat. “It will eventually be cheaper than the kind of chicken meat currently for sale, and consumers will flock to it,” says Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy working on food ethics at North Carolina State University. “They flocked to milk made with bovine growth hormone [bGH], even though they reported being opposed to genetically modified foods, once they saw that the bGH milk was cheaper,” he says.

Yet even if people are happy to try new food technologies, does the best solution to the problems lie in our food culture? Studies show that fewer of us are cooking at home than ever before; young people in particular are becoming less familiar with the range of ingredients and where they come from. A 2012 poll by the charity Linking Environment and Farming found that 33 per cent of 16-to-23-year-olds were unable to identify hens as the source of eggs.

Comstock rejects the argument that developing food technologies will further obscure the origins of our food. “We are already as alienated as we can be from the sources of our food,” he says. “Most of us have no idea about the conditions in which birds are grown and slaughtered.”

For Regev, young people are less of a problem and could even be a big part of the solution. Because their food habits are less entrenched, he says, young people will be more willing to try something new. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to accept this new technology, or new technologies in general.”

He reminds me, “We really don’t have time for a hundred-year social progress movement.” Better get biting that burger, then.

This article appears in the 24 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain