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Winston Churchill Imagined the Lab-Grown Hamburger

But he was off about the year when it would be created

The face of a dreamer. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The year was 1931. Winston Churchill, then a prominent but fringe politician, published an article in Strand Magazine where he imagined the world “Fifty Years Hence.” In that piece of futurism, he envisioned, among other things, lab-grown meat.

Churchill’s essay is largely unremarkable. But the lab-grown meat idea stands out. Churchill wrote: "With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."

The first lab-grown meat product, a hamburger, was fried up in 2013, 32 years later than Churchill’s prediction. And according to one cultured meat startup, lab-grown chicken nuggets and a few other dishes are now at least technically possible to make. Daniela Galarza writes for Eater that startup Memphis Meats is predicting that its products, which include lab-grown chicken strips and lab-grown duck a l’orange, would be on the market by 2021.

However, Galarza writes that there are many hurdles standing between the company and grocery stores. For one thing, the cost of producing lab-grown meat products is still extremely high (think $9,000 per pound for Memphis Meats’s chicken). Beyond that, there are the small matters of convincing consumers to eat lab-grown meat and, oh, getting Food and Drug Administration approval to actually sell the product.

There were other areas where Churchill was perceptive. A bunch of 1930s-1950s predictions about the future of food suggested that it wouldn’t look anything like food had previously.

“Back in the mid-20th century, everybody believed the future of food was fully artificial,” writes Michael Ann Dobbs for io9. “Pills, bars, goop, pastes, wafers and syrups were a staple of science fiction and futurism, and scientists did their best to make these things a reality.”

In time, though, the unpalatable idea of pill food fell out of fashion–as Churchill predicted it would. “Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future,” he wrote, but “That gloomy Utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded.” Rather than tablets, he wrote, “The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.” Wonder what he would have thought about another Silicon Valley product: Soylent. 

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