Object 41

Owen’s Original Cloned Burger

2033, Ontario, Canada

In the mid-20th century, visions of the future often depicted people getting their nutrition from pills, or perhaps some kind of synthesised slurry. You can understand the reasoning; while we all need to eat to survive, taste, from a purely biological perspective, is mostly irrelevant; the only thing that matters is getting the right mix of nutrients into our bodies, and pills can be swallowed faster than potatoes. However, quite aside from the sheer impossibility of getting enough calories from such a small volume of matter, such a passionless approach completely ignored the pleasurable aspects of eating a good meal. Life is not simply about survival, 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.

Since the agricultural age, food has generally meant vegetables, but that changed in recent centuries with the advent of new farming techniques that allowed the production of cheap meat on an industrial scale. By 2033, more than 60 billion chickens were living in 'factory farms', with billions more cows, pigs, and other animals all slaughtered to feed the world's voracious appetite 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 in. While there was some progress in improving farm animal welfare in the 20th century, it was painfully slow since drastic changes would have harmed the profits of the 'integrators' and retailers — which in turn would have increased prices for consumers.

No, ethical considerations were not the sole reason for why the world moved away from factory farming in the 21st century. Environmental, economic, and scientific changes played just as large a role, and each of those is summed up in this object — an Owen's Original Beef Burger, first 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. Thankfully, this burger is not actually from 2033. Instead, it's a rather sprightly 90-seconds old, which is a good thing 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 strong peppery taste, yet still 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 provided only the necessary nutrient bath, your burger would basically be an unsightly blob of animal cells. I imagine that's not the sort of thing you’d enjoy eating, so I needed to encourage the formation of blood vessels and arteries so that the tissue would turn into muscles that are, well, tastier and look better. Those muscles were stimulated electrically, and I made sure that the stem cells worked right — well, I could go on, but I won't.

"Anyway, if you know exactly how to do it and you have the right tools, it's easy enough to make cloned meat. But the pioneers had to work it all out from scratch and make their own tools. Compared to the usual way of obtaining meat by rearing and killing animals, it must have been incredibly frustrating!"

Frustrating, but well worth the effort. There were two pressures driving the development of cloned meat. The first was that the traditional farming model had been built on the assumption that cheap land, cheap water, and cheap electricity would last forever. But climate change and increased competition for arable land proved those assumptions wrong. It was also becoming more difficult to keep livestock healthy due to new restrictions on the use of antibiotics.

Even with 'traditional' meat becoming more expensive in the 20s, cloned meat — still only being grown in labs at huge expense — didn't constitute a genuine alternative. It would take a second pressure to make cloned meat affordable: the demand of the 'mass elderly' for clean and nutritious food, and a corresponding breakthrough in mass-produced bioreactors. Across the world were hundreds of millions of consumers who wanted to live healthily. Only cloned meat could be guaranteed to be germ-free, impeccably sourced from bioreactor to deliverbot to the dining table.

Not only that, but cloned meat could be tailored to different consumers so that it contained the perfect balances of nutrients. An early manufacturer, Tiersen, said that it was “more like medicine than meat — except this medicine tastes good”. The fact that Tiersen employees were anonymously stoking fears of 'traditional meat' contamination on casters and scenario engineering sites didn't hurt their their business either — at least, not until the company was forced to pay a (sadly modest) $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 were 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 these days he's living in Hamilton, Ontario. 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 fire sale at a bankrupt pharmaceutical company.

After many unsuccessful attempts, his friends finally gave him the thumbs up. Owen started selling subscriptions to his burger recipe to restaurants around the world, with a considerable discount if they kept his name on the menu. Owen's Originals proved to be a long-lived success, selling tens of millions of burgers over five years before Peter Owen decided to accept an open-source bounty for the recipe, place it into the public domain, and move on to new ideas.

All of this talk of 'cloned meat' is, of course, rather baffling to us today since we usually just call it 'meat'. The prospect of actually eating an animal 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 where tens of billions of animals are slaughtered every year.