When people learn I’m a vegetarian they will often ask if I plan on ever eating meat again. While I like to convince myself that the answer is a definitive “no” (although a lot could happen in everland), an article in the June issue of Scientific American recently made me refine my answer to a “maybe.”
The article, called “Inside the Meat Lab,” discusses the possibility of our future meat supply mainly coming from inside labs – single pieces of muscle grown separately from a whole living organism. The idea itself is fairly straight forward; you take some embryonic or adult stem cells from the animal and multiply them in a bioreactor, feeding and growing them on a culture derived from plants.
The reality of grocery store available chunks of edible muscle is, however, a tad more difficult. The main obstacle right now to a viable market product is funding – very few governments are willing to fund the necessary research. This is puzzling because, as the article points out, growing single pieces of meat could (theoretically) solve a lot of world hunger issues and reduce planetary stress caused by current factory farming.
Our population passed 7 billion this year, and will likely grow to 9 billion by 2050. In Canada, there are roughly 55 million acres of farmland given over to tilled and natural pasture (Stats Canada). By growing what could conceivably be nothing but the finest cuts of meat in-vitro on unworkable land (even the tundra), workable land available for grain and vegetable crops could grow by more than 60%, and that’s just one country! Food security was one of the key catalysts of political upheaval this year in Egypt and Tunisia, just as it was during the French Revolution. As the price of wheat and other staple foods continue to rise in developed countries, perhaps we’ll yet hear a modern Marie Antoinette: “If they have no bread, let them eat steak!”
So why no magic meat labs? Most researchers believe it has to do with the public’s general aversion to engineered meat, what they call the “ick” factor. Apparently people haven’t warmed to the idea of eating meat that has been grown in a lab, instead of in an animal.
Personally I think the idea is awesome– mainly because I would get to eat bacon again without the annoying issue of killing a pig first. The social acceptance of cultured meat is somewhat understandable when you take a look at the ways in which science is currently seen to interfere with food production. The two biggest controversial issues are probably genetically modified foods (GMOs) and the use of bovine growth hormone in the US (it’s pretty much banned everywhere else).
But science has its dirty hands all over your food. Some items that would not be possible without science include Oreo cookies, processed (or American) cheese, Kool-Aid, canned tuna, pretty much all processed foods, and all those lovely things that come from fermentation. We also have science to thank for the addition of several vitamins and minerals to our everyday foods (such as iodine in salt and vitamin D in milk which = fewer goiters and rickets).
Yet for as long as science has been “improving” things people have been complaining. In the 1920’s everyone thought that enforced pasteurization of raw milk was a bad thing. Get it together people! I want some bacon.
I would love to know your opinions on the idea of growing meat in a lab versus on a farm. Any thoughts on whether or not this might actually happen in the near future? Would you eat it??????