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March 15, 2012 at 3:48 PMComments: 6 Faves: 0

The Future of Food, Part 2: Petri-Dish Burgers

By Laura Hogg More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the NatuREport Blog Series

A couple months ago, my brother messaged me on Facebook to ask me a question: “Scientists are now able to produce meat in a lab. Would you eat that?”

As a vegetarian, my initial gut reaction was, are you kidding me? No way!

His question caught me off guard; I had never heard of such technology before. As I started to think about it, more and more questions came to mind – namely, how exactly does this process work? And would I be willing to eat the end result?

In Vitro Meat: The Process

This technology is pretty much still in its infancy, but it basically works like this: you take a muscle cell biopsy from a live animal (chicken, cow, elephant – whatever). The cells, called myoblasts, are then grown on an edible scaffolding in a culture medium that supplies them with all the nutrients they would get if they were still inside the animal. The scaffolding organizes the cells into muscle fibers that bend and stretch – basically, so they can “exercise.”

The result? Well, so far, the meat produced by the in vitro process hasn’t exactly been gourmet, though one lab has had some success with “pork.” Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to replicate the complexity of a real animal. Some speculate that the first in vitro meat available for consumption will be a mishmash of separately-grown muscle fibers for texture, fat cells to add flavor, and blood vessels for color. Uhh…yum?

Another lab is envisioning “designer” combinations of any meat imaginable. So if you’ve always dreamed of having a zebra/koala burger, well, it might just be your lucky day.

Benefits

Before we get to my thoughts on the subject, in the interest of fairness, let’s talk about the benefits. Growing meat in this manner would:

  • Emit up to 95% less greenhouse gas
  • Use up to 60% less energy
  • Use 98% less land than traditional meat
  • Be free of pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella
  • Be grown without hormones or antibiotics
  • Potentially be engineered to contain extra nutrients

It seems pretty clear to me that, on the issues of animal suffering and the environment, this is clearly a better solution than traditional factory farming. It’s also worth noting that PETA – yes, PETA – has lobbied for this research to continue, and has given funding, though the U.S. government has not (or will not).

But does that mean that I will eat it?

To be honest, I’ve had a hard time gathering my thoughts on this issue. I had never even considered this as a possibility. So after some thought, my answer is a resounding:

Maybe.

It’s tough to argue with the environmental benefits and the reduction in animal suffering, so I think this research should definitely continue. I really don’t think we will ever have a completely meatless society (as much as I would love that!) so I think this may be, in the long run, our best solution.

But I still have issues with it.

For one thing, this process just isn’t natural. (Well, obviously.) It’s cleaner, it’s greener, to be sure, but something about the thought of a lab making meat is just kind of weird. I think that we’d all be best off if we stuck to whole, fresh, plant-based foods. But then again, the “unnatural” criticism goes for most processed food – something most Americans don’t really have a problem with.

Secondly – and this is just a personal thing – after years of not eating meat, I just don’t have the taste for it anymore. And blood vessels and fat in meat always grossed me out – since long before I became a vegetarian. I just…okay, I don’t even want to think about it. Yuck.

A final consideration is that, if this “meat” did enter into popular cuisine – how would we know which of the meat was grown in a lab, and how much came from a factory farm? I would have to ask so many questions every single time I ate a meat dish – and sometimes, it’s not really feasible to find out where the meat came from. It would be a hassle similar to that faced by those who only eat so-called “free-range” meat (a largely meaningless term, by the way). And for me, especially since I’ve lost my taste for it, it just wouldn’t be worth it.

This is definitely a topic that merits further thought and discussion. Would I completely rule out ever eating a bite of lab-grown meat? No. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find it in my refrigerator, either.

What are your thoughts? Vegetarians, would you eat a lab-grown burger? Omnivores, do you support this research – or would you only eat meat grown “on the hoof”?

Sources:

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6 Comments

  • Hmm. Very skeptical. My experience is the more things are touched by man the more chance they are going to be bad for you. This could be a whole other topic all together.

  • Agreed, Sue. It's hard to talk about this technology without knowing all of the specifics...but one thing we do know is that processed food is never as good for you as what nature has to offer!

  • Splice those genes into a tree and we could have meat orchards. Just spray them down with pesticides to keep the flies under control.

  • What about the symbiotic relationship formed between humans and domesticated animals? Or the intestinal bacteria that we gain from eating meat? How does removing meat completely from a human diet do anything but spell doom for our species as a whole?

  • Meat comes with its own risks. I'm a vegetarian and I'm not at all close to keeling over! ;)

  • Wow - the whole idea seems far fetched! Where's the nature in this?

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