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.

If -- and it's a big if -- the burger did go into mass production one day, it could in fact make normal, cow-based meat cheaper, but that would mainly just help middle-income people who can already afford food but want to buy more meat, according to Gawain Kripke, director of research and policy for Oxfam America.

And even then, making animal protein affordable is not the same thing as ameliorating hunger.

"There is enough food in the world today to feed every adult 2000+ calories per day," Emelie Peine, an assistant professor of international economics at the University of Puget Sound. "I think the question is not whether there is enough meat in the world and whether it is affordable, but rather, how are we using our agricultural resources, who benefits, and at what cost to our health and our environment?"

The connection between high-tech food production techniques and hunger happens, Muldavin thinks, because the people behind it "need to find ways to legitimate ongoing investment in this form of technology. I think that's a disservice to people who are working on those issues in more realistic ways. This just reinforces the notion that hunger is all about abundance."

Instead, most famines occur because disasters cause crops, food delivery systems, and social networks to break down on a massive scale, or because corruption or inefficiency diverts food from needy people.

Muldavin used Hurricane Sandy as a first-world example:

"When Sandy came in, it disrupted the whole system of the distribution of food. In doing that, all kinds of people who would not normally feel food insecure became that way. People who didn't have access to economic or social capital saw their food insecurity continue for weeks and weeks. Their vulnerability is based on longer-term socio-economic issues because they lacked the social networks to provide them with food in a time of trouble."

There are any number of causes of hunger, but very few of them could be resolved by replacing animals with test tubes. In Somalia in 2011, corrupt businessmen stole thousands of sacks of food aid and sold it on the open market. In other situations, food aid itself is the problem -- organizations sell the leftovers on open markets, which can undermine local farmers. Oxfam has argued that the scooping up of land in developing countries by foreign investors -- a practice known as "land grabbing" -- is also partly to blame. In a report last year, the group described how these deals often occur in countries that have massive hunger problems:

Yet perversely, precious little of this land is being used to feed people in those countries, or going into local markets where it is desperately needed. Instead, the land is either being left idle, as speculators wait for its value to increase and then sell it at a profit, or it is predominantly used to grow crops for export, often for use as biofuels.

And then there are the even more mundane problems: food waste, which occurs in the developing world as a result of poor roads and infrastructure; and incomes, which for many families are just too low to afford enough to eat.

Granted, there have been some studies showing that crop yields haven't been rising enough meet projected demand for food. However, the solutions researchers propose to this problem are simple, unsexy things like moving away from producing biofuels, using fertilizer and water more efficiently, and cutting down on food waste. And, for countries with enough food but a high degree of inequality, the answer could be to connect the poorest of the poor with economic opportunities.

To be fair, the 3D printer, the lab burger, and things in that vein are all breakthroughs. But our enthusiasm for scientific developments is a problem when it overshadows real, attainable -- but much less photo-friendly -- solutions to big humanitarian issues. Innovations like lab-beef might signal a " Brave Moo World," as the U.K.'s Sun newspaper put it, but not a less-hungry one.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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