The food and farming world, as we know it, is about to change. The world's first 'in vitro' burger is being cooked and eaten in the public eye, today. It's an extraordinary moment, and one that I have been waiting for with baited breath.
This may come as a surprise to some. As the Chief Executive of the world's leading farm animal welfare charity, it may sound like a surprising stance for me to take. But this, to me, could signify the end of suffering for millions of farm animals. If we can (and we have) found a way to successfully produce meat in a laboratory, I can only hope that factory farms will be a thing of the past.
Professor Mark Post, who is the driving force behind this burger, is also a signatory of my charity Compassion's vision for fair food and farming. He fully understands the urgent need to cut our dependency on cheap meat. With the population expanding at an extraordinary rate, we are polluting our environment and using so much of our resources, to produce meat that provides a fraction of the calories that go into its production. Often the meat produced originates from farm animals kept in factory farms: dirty, squalid, barren environments, where they are not treated with the respect and decency they so deserve.
This 'in vitro' burger has been made from around 3,000 strips of artificial beef - grown from the stem cells of a slaughtered cow. Granted, it is costing almost £250,000 but that is including the years of research that have got us to this point. In comparison to the true cost of factory farming: to the animals, our environment and our health, and what in vitro meat may herald for the future, this seems like money well spent. There is a long way to go before large-scale 'in-vitro' meat production is realistic but this really is world-changing and life-changing.
What the experts say
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jason Matheny of New Harvest - dedicated to producing alternatives to meat and other animal products. We discussed what lab-produced meat would taste like. He said: "It should taste the same as conventional meat - it's made of the same stuff. We think we can match the taste and texture by producing meat in a way that's much safer, more efficient and much healthier for the consumer."
This was music to my ears. It sounds too good to be true. Are there down-sides? Are there any reasons that this shouldn't or couldn't work? Matheny and I continued to discuss what these might be. There has been talk of the 'yuck' factor - what of that, I asked. Matheny stated: "The yuck factor should really be focused on conventional meat and the way that it's produced now: it's unhealthy, unsafe and unsustainable."
I believe that best-selling author, Michael Pollen, says it best, when he discusses the benefits of finding a new way to produce meat. He says: "Conventional meat production is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, as well as water and pollution. The animal factories that produce most of our meat and milk are brutal places where animals suffer needlessly."
This new burger could symbolise the end to that: less environmental damage, and a future free from keeping farm animals in horrific conditions. I can't wait.