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Forget grain-fed beef. How about a petri-dish burger?

McDonald’s has its Big Mac and quarter pounder. Could the petri-dish burger be coming soon?

Over the next century, the world’s population is expected to surge from 7 billion to more than 10 billion. With the agricultural industry already under strain to keep up with increasing demands, farmers around the globe are facing obstacles such as climate change, shrinking water tables and soil degraded from aggressive fertilizer use.

As questions mount over the world’s ability to feed a fast-growing population, scientists say they are making slow but steady progress towards developing “cultured meat,” meat produced in vitro, from a cell culture, rather than in vivo, from an animal.

According to a report published this week by Oxbridge Roundtable, a London-based think tank that says it connects academia with industry, cultured meat represents a way to keep pace with the increasing demand for meat.

Oxbridge said research groups in the Netherlands are close to announcing the development of the first in vitro burger.

Cultured meat production could help address environmental problems such as climate change, Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization working to develop meat substitutes, was quoted as saying in a 2009 article on cultured meat in the New York Times.

“Recent research at Oxford University suggests that cultured meat would reduce meat’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 90 per cent. It would do more for the climate than would replacing all of our cars with bicycles,” Matheny said.

Oxford notes the concept is hardly new.

In 1932, Winston Churchill wrote “fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Oxford also notes some of the hurdles scientists face developing cultured meat.

“Stem cells from the desired farm animal must be extracted and grown,” the thinktank says. “So far, the stem cells of these types of animals have not been grown with unlimited replication potential. This has only been achieved from the embryonic stem cells of mouse, rhesus monkey, human and rat, all of which would most likely be met with public resistance. Use of adult stem cells of the desired animal seems to be the way forward in this respect but again there are several problems with the proliferation and successful culturing of these cells.”

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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First burger should be named "Memories of Soylent Green"

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