Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists
Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007
What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?
Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.
Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?
Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”
Using pig stem cells, scientists have been growing lab meat for years, and it could be hitting deli counters sooner than you think.
Early attempts produced less-than-enticing results. Then, in 2001, scientists at New York’s Touro College won funding from NASA to improve in vitro farming. Hoping to serve something, well, beefier than kelp on moon bases and Mars colonies, the scientists successfully grew goldfish muscle in a nutrient broth. And, in 2003, a group of hungry artists from the University of Western Australia grew kidney bean-size steaks from biopsied frogs and prenatal sheep cells.
Today, scientists funded by companies such as Stegeman, a Dutch sausage giant, are fine-tuning the process. It takes just two weeks to turn pig stem cells, or myoblasts, into muscle fibers. “It’s a scalable process,” says Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a meat substitute research group. “It would take the same amount of time to make a kilogram or a ton of meat.” One technical challenge: Muscle tissue that has never been flexed is a gooey mass, unlike the grained texture of meat from an animal that once lived. The solution is to stretch the tissue mechanically, growing cells on a scaffold that expands and contracts. This would allow factories to tone the flaccid flesh with a controlled workout.
It seems clear that the animal-rights reasons disappear. If vegetarians eat broccoli and squash, but not beef and pork, because vegetables aren’t sentient creatures, and animals are, then giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks aren’t sentient either. No animal is suffering in the factory “growing” of these sheets, and no animal feels pain or dies as one of these sheets is pulled from the scaffolding that holds it.
The health objection probably remains open for a while, as it does with any manufactured or genetically rearranged food. Quite possibly, “organic” “growers” of meat sheets will come into being, using pure spring water and other nutrients, and not altering the meat cells as they develop. In moderation, meat doesn’t clog most people’s arteries or seriously raise cholesterol, and as a source of concentrated proteins it has health benefits that vegetarians manage to do without.
The environmental objections probably disappear more quickly; in fact, factory racks of gray sheets of meat may have less impact on the environment than paddies of rice or even fields of wheat.
For my own part, I’ve never objected to killing a small number of animals for food, if they were reared in ways that give them a reasonably full life that’s without avoidable suffering. Many members of the animal kingdom kill other animals for food, and humans are one of them. To object to killing animals on principle always struck me as a way of setting humans apart from the natural world in a way that religion does, with equally irrational consequences.
In talking with vegetarians over the years, many seem to object to consuming meat because of these religious-like reasons. They don’t say that, and hitherto they haven’t had to. That objection obviously still stands, but now they will have to be made explicit. My guess is we’ll see a fair amount of sputtering and circumlocution as many vegetarians are forced to rethink their fundamental beliefs. I’ll be one of them, though not for the religious reason. In my case, it’s just that longstanding habits of thought and behavior are hard to break. Grilled meat never stopped smelling good, but it also somehow came to smell quite gross at the same time. I’d probably gag on my first gray meat sheet.
Currently costing around $100,000 per kilogram, a choice cut of lab meat makes Kobe beef seem like a bargain. But meat-processing companies hope to start selling affordable factory-grown pork in under a decade. Bon appétit.