Why We Can't Count on the Test-Tube Burger to Solve World Hunger

New food technologies may be incredible, but they won't necessarily save starving children. Here's what will.
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Chef Rich McGeown prepares to cook the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a launch event in west London on August 5, 2013.

The hamburger grown from stem cells in a lab may have tasted kind of bad, but that didn't seem to dampen hopes for its revolutionary potential:

"[Burger creator Mark] Post said that lab-cultured meat can play an important role in the future: Not only could it help feed the planet, but it also could help solve environmental problems stemming from conventional meat production," the Washington Post reported.

"Scientists hope that being able to make meat in labs will help combat world hunger and slow climate change," one report's kicker read.

In an editorial, Canada's Globe and Mail said the Frankenburger could become "a cheap supply of protein that could help reduce hunger around the world."

Lab-grown meat is obviously an incredible development. If produced on a wide scale, it could greatly cut the environmental impact of raising livestock. It could help us funnel the grains we currently feed cattle toward other uses. And yes, it provides a way for animal-ethics people to better enjoy barbeques.

But we have to be careful when we talk about amazing food technologies as being a way to help "hunger" or a "hungry population," and not just because this burger currently costs $330,000 to produce and might not be commercially available to consumers for decades.

About 12.5 percent of the world's population is considered "hungry," but many development economists say we already grow enough food to feed them all.

It's true that as people get richer and populations continue to grow, more people will demand meat, and lab-grown meat could be one way to provide it to them without raising more cows. But most actual hunger that people experience, sustainability experts believe, is not because of a lack of food in the world -- lab-grown or otherwise -- but rather the result of a complicated mix of poverty, natural disasters, theft, or poor land use.

And while petri-dish burgers might help the situation by bringing attention to the "hunger" issue, they probably aren't going to solve it in the long run.

***

Around the time that the previous futuristic-food genie -- a 3D printer that spits out geometrically shaped, insect-based food pellets -- was unveiled, Anjan Contractor, the inventor, told Christopher Mims, a reporter for our sister site Quartz, "I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can't supply 12 billion people sufficiently. So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food."

After the technique was unveiled, a Yahoo news headline proclaimed, " NASA awards grant for 3-D food printer; could it end world hunger? "

"No," is the resounding answer, according to several development writers who responded at the time. We don't new ways to turn insects into food, it turns out. "Hunger" means not having the stuff to make food -- insect-based or otherwise.

"Using chemical reactions to turn plant matter into food isn't a revolutionary idea,"wrote Josh Keating in Foreign Policy. "By this standard, the oven in my kitchen is a 3-D printer: If I put in special powders called flour and yeast, it will print me out a loaf of bread."

Several years ago, I reported on a hobbyist collective of 3D printing enthusiasts in Los Angeles. It was amazing to watch them get stoked on their creations. But one big takeaway for me was that these machines (they were MakerBot Cupcake CNCs) are still incredibly difficult to operate and maintain.

"Like most geeks, I love technology that inspires me to think about the future," one of them said to me. "But I wouldn't recommend my friends go out and buy one right now, because I'd spend three weekends out of the month helping them with it."

This is not the kind of thing we want deployed to remote, underdeveloped locations that lack both replacement parts and people with advanced degrees in computer-assisted drafting.

There are similar issues at play with the lab meat: Replicating cells outside of a mammal requires a sterile environment with the right temperature, fans, lights, and equipment -- not to mention the IP rights to use the technology pioneered by the original researchers, Joshua Muldavin, a professor of human geography at Sarah Lawrence College, told me.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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