Owen’s Original cloned burger
Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, many predicted that people in ‘the future’ would prefer to eat pills or some kind of slurry in order to speed up eating; after all, while we all need to eat to survive, from a purely biological perspective, it’s only about getting the right mix of nutrients into our bodies. However, quite aside from the sheer impossibility of getting enough calories from a couple of pills, such a prosaic approach completely ignored the pleasurable aspects of eating a good meal. After all, the point of life isn’t simply to survive, it’s to flourish, and it would be a shame to ignore millennia of good food and communal meals in favour of saving a few minutes here and there.
For the vast majority of humanity, food generally meant vegetables, but in the past few centuries that changed with the advent of new agricultural techniques that allowed for the production of cheap meat on a massive scale. By 2033, over 60 billion chickens were living in ‘factory farms’, with billions more cows, pigs, and other animals, all to feed the world’s voracious apetite for animal protein.
Most of these animals were kept in cramped conditions with little to no access to the outside world, let alone space to walk around. While there was some progress in improving farm animal welfare, it was painfully slow since drastic changes would harm the profits of the large suppliers and supermarkets. Ultimately, moral considerations were not what caused the world to move away from factory farming – instead, it was a combination of environmental, economic, and scientific changes that did. And each of those changes is summed up in this object – an Owen’s Original Beef Burger, originally sold in Ontario, Canada.
I’ve managed to obtain this Owen’s Original via the efforts of Mary Alderman, a chef at Fifth Column in Berlin. This burger is not actually from 2033, but a rather sprightly three minutes old, which I’m thankful for because I’m about to take a bite of it right now. And yes, it’s just as delicious as they said it would be; a very earthy taste, but also surprisingly tender and flavourful. But the meat in this burger didn’t come from a cow grazing outdoors, or cramped indoors – it came from a bioreactor. Mary Alderman explains:
“I grew the cells in this burger inside a sterile ‘test tube’ environment, seeded around a printed scaffold made from organic materials. Now, if I left it at that and only provided necessary nutrient bath, your burger would basically be a rather unsightly large blob of cells. Since I imagine that’s not the sort of thing you enjoy eating, I needed to encourage the formation of blood vessels and arteries to make sure that the tissue turned into muscles that you’d be more familiar with – and of course, those muscles needed to be stimulated electrically.”
“If you know how to do it and have the right tools, it’s easy, but I know that the pioneers encountered many mistakes and dead ends before they perfected the process. Compared to the usual way of obtaining meat, it must have been incredibly frustrating!”
Frustrating, but it was worth the effort for some. There were two pressures driving the development of cloned meat. The first was the increasing cost of the traditional farming model, which had been built on the assumption that cheap land, cheap water, and cheap electricity would be with us forever. With climate change and increasing competition for arable land from the recompeting countries, these assumptions looked increasingly invalid. It was also becoming more difficult to keep livestock healthy due to new restrictions on antibiotic use.
But even with ‘traditional’ meat becoming more expensive in the 20s, cloned meat – still only being grown in labs – didn’t constitute a genuine alternative. It would take another pressure to bring prices down: the demand of the newly elderly for clean and nutritious food. Across the world were tens of millions of consumers who were focused on living healthily, and cloned meat was marketed as being guaranteed germ-free and impeccably sourced from bioreactor to deliverbot to home.
Not only that, but cloned meat could be tailored to different consumers so that it contained different types and balances of molecules. According to its biggest backer, Tiersen, it was more like medicine than meat – except for that fact that it tasted good. The fact that Tiersen affiliates were also stoking fears of ‘traditional meat’ contamination on casters and through scenario engineering didn’t hurt either – at least, not until the company was forced to pay a $1.2 billion fine in 2031.
As other companies joined the ‘tailored meat’ bandwagon, the cost of bioreactors began dropping and more scientists began engineering cell lines, some of which had their recipes open-sourced. Soon, it wasn’t unusual to see bioreactors join the ranks of cooking implements at high end restaurants; and from there, it was a short trip to fast food outlets and community kitchens.
That’s the origin of my Owen’s Original here. Surprisingly, Peter Owen is actually a real person, not a corporate invention, and he’s living in Hamilton, Ontario these days. According to him, he arrived at the recipe for his burgers by experimenting for several months with a bioreactor setup he’d picked up from a firesale at a bankrupt pharmaceutical company.
After his friends gave the thumbs up, he started selling subscriptions to the recipe (and ongoing improvements) to restaurants around the world, with a discount if they kept his name on the food. Owen’s Originals proved to be a long-lived success, selling tens of millions of burgers over five whole years before Peter Owen decided to open source the recipe and move on to other work.
All of this talk of ‘cloned meat’ is, of course, rather baffling to us today since we usually just call it ‘meat’, whereas the prospect of actually eating animals tends to equally divide people between those who find it distasteful, and those who see it as a special treat. Whatever your own view, I think we can all agree that we’d rather not return to a world with tens of billions of animals slaughtered every year.