The food of the future is here. Beamed straight in from the pages of a sci-fi comic, onto a plate in Hammersmith. Scientists (with a little help from Sergey Brin) have finally created meat that was grown in a lab.
McDonalds charge 1.49 for a burger reared the old-fashioned way. With blood and guts and slaughter houses and enormous amounts of energy consumption and arable land use. The first burger made the new way cost 215,000. But it worked and now people feel confident that sooner or later, lab-cultivated meat will be a commercially viable option. An option that could just solve a lot of problems for billions of people.
According to early indications, synthetic meat can be made using 90% less land and water, 70% less energy and of course, with no need to kill any animals. With the world's population predicted to rocket to 9.5 billion by 2060, it could guarantee a greater supply of nutritious food with more limited resources. Energy saving. Land saving. Animal saving. Sounds like win, win, win.
But for years, we've been buying into the idea that when it comes to what we eat, natural is good. Natural is pure. Natural has nothing to do with men in white coats and petri dishes. It's all about rolling green fields, sunshine and organic growth. Brands for everything from supermarkets to cosmetics to smoothies have been drilling this message into us for a very long time. And no matter how idealized or unrealistic this idea of natural purity is, it completely chimes with the way millions of people feel.
So the new recipe makes many people feel distinctly queasy. Take stem cells from two organically-raised cows and from there, spend three months growing 20,000 muscle fibres in a laboratory. Remove the hoops of fibre, slit them open, colour with beetroot juice, mix with saffron, breadcrumbs and binding agents. Press it all together and hey presto. A beef burger, but not as you know it.
We've seen the immense promise of GM crops feeding the world come to nothing. And we've seen the intense resistance of European consumers to the idea of genetically modified 'Frankenfoods'. So perhaps the biggest challenge this new magic meat faces is not how to get the business model right or how to mass-produce it. It's how to brand it.
In a world that strives for natural and pure, how can this new food be branded for good? How can we shift perceptions of one of the most amazing scientific breakthroughs of this decade from the realm of science, into the realm of the kitchen? How do we brand it, market it and message it so that millions of people see it as a lip-smackingly tasty force for good?
It's a brilliant and important challenge. And one that holds the key to whether this really will be a food of the future. Or just another great idea that never quite managed to win people over.