What if I told you that you could have a steak, or a breast of chicken or a nice slice of ham, without having to worry about antibiotics, hormones, over-crowding of factory farms, environmental damage or the death of an animal?
And how about if I told you that in a decade or two, you’ll be able to make that same steak or chicken breast yourself, on your kitchen counter?
Welcome to the wonderful world of lab-grown or “cultured” meat. Invented as a source of easily accessible protein for astronauts, cultured meat may be available to consumers in as little as five years.
To create the meat, small amounts of muscle cells are removed from an animal and grown in a culture or solution. Stem cells from embryos may also be used. This culture is usually made from bovine fetal tissue, although researchers have had some success with a mushroom-based solution as well.
The meat is grown on thin plastic sheets that are stretched and jiggled to simulate muscle movement and promote growth. The meat may also have electrodes attached to it that send an electrical charge through the muscle tissue causing to it contract – similar to those muscle-building belts you see on infomercials.
Proponents of lab-grown meat offer up many positive attributes to the product:
Cultured meat has the potential to be healthier, safer, less polluting, and more humane than conventional meat. Fat content can be more easily controlled. The incidence of foodborne disease can be significantly reduced, thanks to strict quality control rules that are impossible to introduce in modern animal farms, slaughterhouses, or meat packing plants. Inedible animal structures (bones, respiratory system, digestive system, skin, and the nervous system) need not be grown. As a result, cultured meat production should be more efficient than conventional meat production in its use of energy, land, and water; and it should produce less waste.
Others, such as journalist Tracy Hukill at Alternet.org, find the idea of lab-created meat to be grossly horrifying:
What a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish (especially the “exercising” of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks). All cultivation is a form of enslavement, however benevolent or necessary, but harnessing the manic energy of stem cells takes that dynamic into a realm where the side effects — the “equal and opposite reaction” promised by Newton — play out perilously close to the life process itself. If synthetic fertilizer, which seemed like such a great way to boost plant fertility, can create a dead zone the size of Maryland at the Mississippi Delta, wiping out a totally different link in the food chain, who’s to say what would come of overexploited RNA or mitochondria?
The response to such criticism by Jason Matheny, a doctoral student and scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park, and creator of the lab-grown meat, is that we already consume plenty of bioengineered foods such as wine, cheese, and tofu. And if you check the labels on almost any manufactured foods in your cupboard, you’ll see that many of the ingredients included there are not especially natural either.
Obviously, the big question that hasn’t been answered yet is how will it taste? If technology can progress enough to simulate a product that looks, feels, tastes and chews like meat, and which, in every sense of the word, is meat, why wouldn’t people eat it? After all, the biggest complaint most meat eaters have with soy products is the flavor and texture (stop shuddering, some of us LIKE Tofurky!); many say they’d eat more soy-based meat substitutes if they were more meat-like.
The Vegetarian Times asked a variety of vegetarians if they would go back to eating meat once the cultured meat became available. Not surprisingly, most of them said no, even the people who are vegetarians for political reasons. The folks from PETA are overjoyed at the prospect however, as lab-grown meat can potentially end the suffering of billions of animals.
Much work must be done before we’ll all be able to pick up a lab-grown steak at the supermarket, though. At present, the pieces of meat remain quite thin, and while the first products will undoubtedly be ground – in the form of sausages, hamburgers, etc. – the progress to something of a more steak-like consistency currently requires that the sheets of meat be stacked.
As a vegetarian who gave up meat due to the issues involved with factory farming, I will definitely try cultured meat when it becomes available. Whether the final product ends up resembling something beautiful like Kobe beef or a seasoned proscuitto, or something more akin to the rubbery Tofurky, is what will be the deciding factor for most consumers.