Flesh without animals: The future of food?

by Tovar on October 15, 2011 · 60 comments

Imagine meat that not only comes in plastic, but grows there.

For years, scientists have been developing methods to grow “tissue cultures” for human consumption. Last month, an article in Mother Jones reported that these food wizards may be getting closer to bringing lab-grown meat to market, though serious obstacles remain.

Not least among these obstacles is the very idea of the stuff.

Call it what you will: “petri meat,” “lab meat,” “test-tube meat,” “in-vitro meat,” or “shmeat” (sheet of meat). It gives people the willies. For me, it conjures images of gelatinous tissue slowly filling an industrial vat, being “exercised” with electrical impulses so that the texture begins to resemble that of muscle, then being sliced, sautéed, and perhaps served up on a bed of lab-lettuce and in-vitro veggies.

As the Mother Jones article and a piece in The New Yorker earlier this year both noted, lab meat will need a real marketing makeover to get people to eat it. New Harvest, an organization that advocates “cultured meat,” claims that such food is just as natural as “bread, cheese, yogurt, and wine.” That’s some serious spin-doctoring. Last time I checked, wheat berries were not cultured in laboratory vats, nor did milk or grapes grow there.

For a moment, though, I’d like to set aside the knee-jerk yuck factor and consider the case made for the stuff. It has its merits.

  • With the planet’s human population already pushing 7 billion, and with a lot of us eating meat, the environmental impacts of the global livestock industry are apt to increase. If lab meat could be produced in bulk without incurring such ecological costs, that would be a big mark in its favor.
  • With many animals being raised in inhumane factory-farming facilities, the ethical costs of meat production are also high. If lab meat could take over a major share of the market, such facilities might decline or even disappear. (Enticed by the possibility of reducing animal suffering, PETA has offered a $1 million reward to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”)
  • With concerns growing over food safety, lab meat could also eliminate the risks posed by mad cow disease, E. coli contamination, and the like.

I grasp the logic. These issues—ecology, ethics, and health—were at the heart of my decisions to become a vegan and, years later, a hunter.

Other thoughts nag at me, though.

What are the implications of making meat in a laboratory? What would it mean for us to take yet another step away from nature? What would it mean to dispel the quandary that human omnivores have faced for millennia, the moral difficulty inherent in taking an animal’s life?

How would it affect our consciousness, and our understanding of what it means to be human here, on Earth? What would it mean for our souls?

Maybe this is the future of food. Maybe, as we continue to outstrip the planet’s capacity to sustain us, we will end up sucking hot dogs out of test tubes.

But I’m glad that day has not yet come. I’m grateful to live in this world, where lettuce and carrots come from garden and farm, where I can hike into the November woods and sit with my back to the trunk of an old hemlock, waiting for hours, listening for hooves crunching the frosty leaves, praying for an animal to appear.

If I am going to eat meat, I want it to come from a creature who, like me, inhabits this world of air, soil, and water, of leafy plants and living, breathing beings. A creature who, like me, is animated by spirit. A creature who, like me, is more than mere flesh.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli

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