It would be easy to dismiss the serving of the first lab-grown burger as classic silly season fodder. Yet this is one photo opportunity that really may mark a historic moment, even if most seem to be missing its exact importance. In vitro meat is significant not because it increases menu options for a few Western vegetarians but because it may represent the next great step upwards in global nutrition.
The importance of food technology to human health and longevity is easy to overlook in favour of more glamorous interventions like vaccinations and antibiotics. Yet wide and reliable access to nourishing food has always been the bedrock of any civilisation.
Robert Fogel calculated in 1997 that most of the reduction in mortality from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, and half of the mortality improvement in the twentieth century could be attributed to improved nutrition.
Simple changes can make spectacular differences. William McNeill’s fascinating counterfactual essay in 2001’s What If collection edited by Robert Cowley suggests the humble potato changed South American, European and world civilisation by providing a remarkably nutrient-dense staple: in northern Europe, calorie yields per acre from potatoes are between two and four times greater than from grain. Similarly, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian’s working paper from 2009 argues that the introduction of the potato was responsible for much of the increase in population and urbanisation observed during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The importance of good nutrition to humankind’s cognitive resources can also be underappreciated. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that adding iodine to salt in the US at the start of the twentieth century raised IQ in some areas by a full standard deviation – 15 points – in just a decade.
Meat has tended to get a bad press in recent years, from health nannies and eco-warriors. But there is no disputing its nutritional advantages. As well as providing a useful source of iodine – and iodine deficiency is still the number one preventable cause of mental retardation worldwide – the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) 2011 report Livestock in Food Security notes that it provides “proteins with a wide range of amino acids that match human needs as well as bio-available micro-nutrients… in which many malnourished people are deficient.” Small amounts added to the diet of malnourished children increases their energy and cognitive ability.
Iron is a particularly important example. A 2008 estimate suggested 1.6bn people are iron deficient worldwide. In 2007, Unicef reported it impaired the mental development of 40–60 per cent of children in developing countries. As the FAO report notes, “meat is not the only source of dietary iron, but it is a good source.” Vitamin B12 is also key to healthy brain function: again, meat is a prime source.
Most of the advantages of ready access to a cheap source of meat would accrue to the world’s poorest, but it will prove significant in developed nations as well. One of the few emergent trends which seems effective at countering the recent rise in obesity is the so-called paleo diet. This favours a menu based around meat and vegetables: but by excluding cheaper grains and starches it still remains an expensive solution.
Of course, in vitro meat technology is at present uneconomic even for the super-rich: this proof-of-concept patty cost £216,000. It is also apparently not exactly a taste sensation. Yet we know it doesn’t have to stay this way. Having watched enough recent technologies ride the innovation curve, we know we should expect boffin burgers to improve even as they become cheaper. Since universal access to cheap, high quality protein would unlock vast reserves of human potential, let us hope that happens soon.