Thursday, December 3, 2009

Veggie Might: Newsflash! Scientists Getting Closer to Lab-grown Meat

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian. The illustration is borrowed from the uber-talented Natalie Dee.

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, funded by the Dutch government and a sausage maker, are getting close to viable lab-grown meat replacement. According to Sunday’s Telegraph, they “have created what was described as soggy pork and are now investigating ways to improve the muscle tissue in the hope that people will one day want to eat it.”

The Sunday Times reports that while, “the scientists have not tasted it...they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.”

In April 2008, PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk issued a challenge to Scientists Everywhere: figure out how to grow meat in the lab, and we’ll stop actin’ the fool all over the place and give you a million dollars*. Turns out that Newkirk’s gauntlet toss, which came just weeks after the In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway, was unnecessary.

Scientists Everywhere were already on it, driven by their own innate “what happens if I do this?” genes. They also claim to be spurred by a quest to reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry and encouraged by NASA researchers’ 2002 “success” with tank-grown fish fillets, born of a few goldfish cells and "fetal bovine serum" (blargh).

The Times article is careful to mention no one is allowed by law to taste these delicacies yet, but researchers believe they will have a viable meat replicant within five years—missing the PETA deadline by three and forfeiting the prize money. The science dude(tte)s don’t seem to mind. (See the “what if I go like this?” genes.)

My first reaction to this news is “Eeeewww!” But then, I remember that I just had faux turkey for Thanksgiving. So what am I getting all skeeved out about? Probably “fetal bovine serum,” for starters.

Essentially, three factors come into play for me: an existing environmental crisis that would benefit greatly from the reduction, if not elimination, of industrial farming; animals that would benefit from not being killed for food; and concerns about GMO and bioengineered food. The former two seem like big wins.

Factory farming is a major contributor to the global environmental crisis. According to Science News, “roughly half of the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions due to human diets come from meat even though beef, pork and chicken together account for only about 14 percent of what people eat.” Plus, consider the increasing number of food safety scares every year: from mad cow-, e-coli-, and salmonella-tainted meat to poisoned produce from feedlot runoff. Safe, sterile test-tube meat isn’t sounding so bad…

But then there’s that pesky GMO-bioengineering issue. I know that processed foods are not as nutritious as whole foods. But what no one knows are the long term effects of genetically modified organisms in our corn, wheat, and soybeans. How different is Petri meat from Bt corn?

So what do you think of all this fiddling around in the lab? Vegetarians, would you eat meat if it didn’t come from an animal? Omnivores, would you consider a bioengineered meat replacement if it helped the environment? Spill in the comments. I’d love to hear what y’all think.

*Psych! PETA will never stop actin’ the fool.


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Lucky said...

Interesting ... I'd have to think about that one. Depends on what it's made of I guess.

Kris said...

Great piece, Leigh. The environmental benefits seem like they might outweigh the squickyness factor, so I think I would at least try it.

Incidentally, from Jon Stewart last night: "Yes, to be clear, the meat, while totally great, is not yet good enough for sausage. It is five years away from being anus-grade pork. God knows how long before we're able to shove a stick in it and wrap a pancake around it."


Stacy Marie said...

The environmental benefits are intriguing, but it's a little too "Oryx and Crake" for me!

chacha1 said...

I would try it, just as I would try a hybrid car if they ever become less expensive than the high-MPG compacts. But I'd really rather just pay a market price that reflects ALL the costs of production, for meat as for gasoline. Grass-fed, small-production, organic steak for $15-$20 a pound instead of $4 for meat from that cesspool called Harris Ranch? No problem.

Liz Tee said...

Uh, as of right now? No go. I eat mostly vegetarian anyway, and it would take a major shift in attitude for me to go for it. Not saying it couldn't happen, but I'd rather not eat meat at all. Heck, I won't even eat the fake boca stuff made of soy products, TVP, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm more of a whole-foods type of girl so I'm not a big believer in most processed foods. The least processed the better.

The environmental factors, however, are quite intriguing and something obviously needs to be done.

laurel said...

I am very much opposed to artificial, genetically modified, processed food. I am not a vegetarian but I eat very little meat (and most of the meat I do eat is deer or fish my family has killed). I would rather give up meat altogether than eat something out of a test tube.

Kristine said...

Meat that comes from a test tube is not meat. I wish I could afford the organic, grass-fed type stuff, but with feeding 8 on a budget of $800/month, that just isn't possible. We just limit our meat.

As for the environmental impact, it's hard to believe they could truly produce the same amount with less impact. It's not giving up gases, but how much waste and emissions are produced for each pound of edible meat created? Between controlled environmental conditions, specialized "food," and the careful handling it will require, I'll be surprised if it ever becomes financially sound to even consider manufacturing.

But mostly, the thought of "lab-grown meat" just makes me want to gag.

Kati said...

Even though I've been a vegetarian for 17 years, I think I would give the test-tube meat a little nibble, especially if: (1) it wasn't derived from fetuses or anything nasty and (2) it was deep fried and served with barbeque sauce. Yum!

Kitschen Bitsch said...

I'm with chacha1 on paying for the costs that go into producing meat right if you're going to partake. That said, though I love my bacon, I go through bouts of what I call "carnivore guilt," but also want to support small-scale farmers. And while the environmental impact can't be ignored, I do worry about the scads of people who have jobs in the meat industry. I've got family who have produced small-scale and factory, and I truly am torn. I care about animals and our environment, and I've see both settings. I'm willing to pay the higher price, but unfortunately, our Walmart society generally isn't. That said, I do not plan to eat lab meat.

Kate said...

As a test-tube jockey myself, I have no real problem with it and would totally try it. But I suspect we've got a ways to go before it actually tastes much like real meat.

wosnes said...

Not in this lifetime...

Anonymous said...

I almost forgot...

Soylent green ...It's people!!!


Anonymous said...

No thanks. I /may/ try it if it becomes very common, but I don't see that happening in this lifetime.

"animals that would benefit from not being killed for food"
Those animals wouldn't be born in the first place though.

Riva said...

I could definitely see this go in an Oryx and Crake direction! But if it doesn't, I think it's a fantastic idea and replacement for millions (billions?) of methane-producing, human-food (grain) consuming, inhumanely treated and killed animals. How we produce the bulk of our meat is so messed up now, I would claim that almost any other way would be an improvement. Re Kristine: It’s hard to see how lab-grown meat wouldn’t have a smaller environmental impact. A liver wouldn’t fart methane all the time, for example.

Incidentally, I just want to say that "artificial" and "GMO" and "processed" don't necessarily apply (or even relate) to lab-grown meat. Maybe they will in the future, but not yet, so those aren't very good reasons to say ick!

One more thing: I think people should stay open-minded about lab-grown meat, at least until its production is taken over by Monsanto or something. If something would have a substantial impact on the environment, but still have a small "ick" factor, I say, just get over it! But admittedly I am one of those crazy people who thinks we should leave something (environment, resources, you know…) for future generations to enjoy :)

Kristine said...

@Riva - you make it sound like this "meat" would grow while practically consuming nothing, and not producing any waste. And to say it's not artificial uses the same reasoning as that says GMO foods are natural.

I'm one of those crazy people that thinks we need to be careful with messing around with nature.

Riva said...

@Kristine - I make it sound that way? I'm sure I tried not to. All I wanted to say was that we have very, very little information on "lab-grown" meat as of yet, so we shouldn't pre-judge it based on things we don't know! We know nothing on what it would cost to produce (yet), and nothing on what it would waste.

I'm sure both of us imagine meat grown "in a tube" wasting something. But given how much an animal wastes (10-16lbs of grain, I believe, is needed for 1 lb of meat), I have a hard time believing "lab grown" would waste as much - cell culture in a lab is not that wasteful! And it's not like raising animals industrially does not produce (toxic) wastes and waste a lot of food humans otherwise could be eating.

To clarify, I think we all should eat a lot less (industrially produced) meat. If I had my way, no one would eat it at all. However, since we live in the real world, I think a potentially less wasteful alternative like "lab grown" sounds awesome for people who don't have the wont or the means to eat otherwise.

I see we should not debate on GMOs - that conversation would probably go badly :-P.

As for my last sentence, it was meant to be wry/black humor, not to start a flame war.

Love the site! I don't usually comment, hopefully I don't get banned as a troll for a dissenting opinion.

Heather said...

Ugh.. In a way, isn't this avoiding some of the real issues here? I agree with those who think we should eat less meat generally, eat more veg, and stick with whole foods. You know, Bittman's mantra - eat food, not too much, mostly plants. And coming up with a lab-grown, unnatural way to 'create' meat kind of just justifies the huge amount of meat we all eat. It lets us eat all the meat we want, and not feel guilty about the environment. I think in an ideal world it'd be better to reduce our meat intake altogether, thereby helping us be healthier and more environmentally friendly.

I'm on the side of the whole foods argument. This is not 'real' food the way I see it. I would far rather give up meat entirely than eat this lab-grown meat.

Another thing I could foresee but I can't fully comprehend just now, is that this could be used to feed poorer nations, etc. Just like GM seeds are given to poorer nations in the past and present - which yes is wonderful in the sense that GM food is far better than starvation, but not so wonderful in the sense that the poor are then arguably even more disadvantaged, and reliant on companies, instead of being able to become more self-reliant and independent in their own food production. What do others think about this?