With the world population expected to top more than nine billion by the year 2050, accompanied by an ever increasing rapacious demand for meat on the global market, scientists are looking for low-carbon ways to feed a hungry world. According to a new study from the Oxford University, they may find it in lab grown meat. In vitro meat has been a scientific daydream for decades, but the technology is finally catching up with the vision. Cultured, commercial ground beef and sausage may be in supermarkets and on menus as soon as 2016.
According to the Oxford study, artificial meat could be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat. With in vitro meat we could drastically reduce the severe environmental impact of animal agriculture, and abolish the need to raise and exploit animals for food.
It is a bitter pill for animal advocates to swallow, but it is an unlikely scenario that we will reach a critical mass of people worldwide who will willingly choose to eliminate environmentally destructive animal products from their diets before catastrophic damage has been done to the planet. The unfortunate reality is that most people will continue to choose to eat meat even when presented with the hard facts: the horrible suffering of animals raised for food, the devastating environmental brunt of animal agriculture, and the ruthless reality that people are starving because of our western meat-centered diets. Despite our best efforts at education, people will still feel that it is their right and privilege to follow the whims of their palates instead of higher ethical imperatives.
The Dawn of Cultured Meat
Lacking the necessary shift in demand, supermarkets will not voluntarily remove animal products from their shelves and restaurants will not change their menus, but with cultured meat, they wouldn’t have to. No animals would be breed, raised, or killed for food yet no one would have to give up meat. Because cultured meat is technically the same as conventional meat, meat eaters would not have to make what might seem to be the austere sacrifice of renouncing their dietary entitlements. In vitro meat could be an example of technology not only saving us, but saving the animals and the environment as well. By simultaneously indulging their traditional and patriotic palate and reducing animal suffering and environmental impact, people could literally have their meat and eat it too!
According to New Harvest, a non-profit organization advancing alternatives to meat, the process of creating cultured meat begins by taking a number of cells from a living farm animal and propagating them in a nutrient-rich solution. After the cells are developed, they are grown on a biodegradable scaffold, just as vines rap around a trellis. In theory, a single cell could be used to feed a global population meat for a year as cultured cells keep multiplying billions of times. The end result could then be processed and cooked as boneless meat such as sausage, hamburger or chicken nuggets. It could even be manipulated to be more nutritious and safer than the flesh of an animal with a lower percentage of saturated fat, infused with omega-3 fatty acids, and containing no hormones, additives, antibiotics and other unhealthy substances as well as being free of pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Pathogenic E. coli, Avian Influenza and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
But is in vitro meat safe? Opponents might levy similar complaints against lab-grown meat as they do against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But they are completely different issues. With GMOs there is the concern that modified organisms might cross pollinate and eventually breed with, and thus permanently alter, traditional strands of crops or even wild species (genetically engineered fish or pine trees for example). There is no such concern with in vitro meat because entire organisms will not be produced and they cannot reproduce with animals. It will simply be like choosing a synthetic vitamin supplement to one that was extracted from a plant– completely identical and indistinguishable from the more “natural” option. To argue otherwise would be to perpetuate a naturalistic fallacy that just because something is “natural” it is better. By that logic we could eliminate agriculture from our diet completely, as well as “artificial” process like basic hygiene, transportation, plumbing, medicine etc.
Will You Buy It?
But there is one potentially fatal flaw to all this– will consumers accept in vitro meat? There is unquestionably a “yuck factor” that will have to be dealt with. However, if you can get consumers to knowingly and willingly inhale toxic smoke from tobacco, ingest dangerous phosphoric acid in soda, and participate in the massive experiment of consuming genetically modified organisms, then certainly this should be much easier, and more welcome. For better or for worse, the tendency of the public is to simply buy what they are sold. An effective marketing campaign and an equal or lower price point should easily quell these concerns. After all, how much actual meat is in those Chicken McNuggets and Whoppers anyway? It doesn’t seem like much of a leap to add a little cultured meat in there does it?
While meat grown in a lab may seem a bit “weird” to some, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I like to watch sci-fi. Ok, full confession, I’m actually addicted. My usual fix-of-choice is Star Trek, so I’ve been used to thinking about “replicated” food for years– bowl, spoon and all. Did you know that everyone on the Enterprise is vegan? (I must clarify so I don’t get in Trekkie trouble– I’m talking about Enterprise D, not NX-01 as they did not have replicator technology yet. Are my Vulcan ears showing?) Oh, they eat chicken soup, beef chili, and chocolate cake but it is synthesized in the replicator. No animals were harmed in the making of these futuristic meals. Fictional Star Trek technology has become fact in our daily lives already (think cell phones, touch screens, and iPads) why not replicated meat? Star Trek has been doing the marketing for us for decades!
For a Better Future
But you may argue that there are plenty of meat substitutes already. This is true and their existence has made it easier for many people who are willing to switch to veganism. However, from the obstinate perspective of most of the public, these products are not meat. People are still demanding meat. Lab-grown meat has the potential to provide the industry a way to solve the numerous dilemmas of meat consumption, and not commit the unthinkable crime of forcing vegetarianism on the public.
If any of the dramatic advantages cultured meat represents are going to become realities, we must take what may at first be an unpopular stance of supporting in vitro meat. The more we speak out in favor of it, the more likely we will reap the benefit to the environment that far surpasses anything that recycling, light bulbs, or electric cars can achieve. Cultured meat can end the needless misery of billions of animals used for human consumption. If we can feed more people with significantly less resources and waste, and eliminate farm animal suffering, let’s let technology redeem itself and feed the world responsibly and compassionately.