From Petri Dish to Barbecue

By | 22nd August 2013

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So the saying goes, but if that means that it is impossible to make something of quality with inferior materials, it seems that scientists beg to differ.

The Economist reports that a few weeks ago on August 5th, in London, approximately one hundred journalists were treated to the launch of what has been billed as a new way to grow meat in the future. They were shown the world’s first laboratory hamburger grown from cow’s muscle cells. The resulting white blob had to be coloured with beetroot juice to turn it a more familiar red and flavoured with saffron to alleviate the appalling taste.

I am happy to accept that we need to find new sources of food for the world’s increasing population. Apparently, already nearly one third of the planet’s ice-free land is currently used to raise livestock to meet our obsession with meat products, which is said to be set to grow by 70% by 2050.

But where do these figures come from? I suppose it is possible to measure how much of the surface area of the Earth is used for a particular activity. After all, there are surveillance satellites and the like. You can see them skimming their way across the night sky if you sit outside on a clear evening. But how does anyone know that by 2050 (why then, rather than 2030?) our appetite for a particular food will grow by a certain percentage?

It must be pure guesswork, garnished with mathematical extrapolation whose source material and accuracy  must be in doubt. The story panders to that side of the human psyche which yearns to be comforted. We need to be soothed that we are not destroying the planet. The scientists, therefore, quote statistics suggesting that a single sample of stem cells will make 20,000 tons of beef, enough to make 175 million quarterpounders. They add that in order to make that number of hamburgers, we would need to slaughter 440,000 cattle. You don’t believe me? It is all in the Economist’s article!

What has this to do with Smart E-Discovery, I hear at least one of you ask?

Not a lot, if I am honest.

The story is, however, sufficiently bizarre for me to bring it to your attention during the holiday season so that you do not miss it. There is just enough reality sprinkled about to make it not only believable but possibly even desirable that the scientists have come up with a way to ward off our impending starvation.

When you think about it, it is not that far removed from our old friends, the false positives, is it?

Train your technology to search for hamburgers and who knows? You may come up with burgers made of top quality meat or you just might come up with the “cultured” version. I would not want to predict which.

What is certainly true is that you need to be sure what you are dealing with and to be able to recognise the sow’s ear from the silk purse!