Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What Does Test-Tube Meat Mean for Vegans?

Yesterday, Terry Gross’s interview with science writer Michael Specter about so-called “test-tube meat” was featured as part of NPR’s Week of Food on “Fresh Air.” Originally broadcast in May 2011, the interview focuses on Specter’s article in The New Yorker about his visits to laboratories where scientists are developing in vitro meat.

Scientists like Vladimir Mironov (Medical University of South Carolina) and Mark Post (Maastricht University in the Netherlands) are using stem cells from pigs and/or cattle to grow tiny “slabs” of meat in petri dishes filled with nutrient broth. The next step is to use biodegradable scaffolding platforms to turn those cells into muscle tissue, which would be indistinguishable from animal flesh.

Because it would literally be animal flesh – without the animal.

According to Specter, in vitro meat could improve the world’s hunger problem by providing food for millions without the extensive use of water, grain, and grass that today’s factory farms require. The eventual replacement of farm-grown meat with meat grown in laboratories would also significantly lower the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That all probably sounds wonderful to omnivores, but there’s one big problem: growing meat in labs just seems weird. Specter acknowledges to Gross that “there is something inherently creepy” about it, but points out that “there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat. ... They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people.”

That idea certainly is extremely exciting to a lot of people – people like me. In a world where in vitro meat is on the shelves next to farm-grown meat, what happens to vegans?

A lot of us will have identity crises.

Whether we adopt in vitro meat into our diets will depend on the reasons that motivate us to be vegan. Those of us who are vegan mainly for health reasons will continue avoiding meat, whether it comes from a farm or a lab.

But I’m vegan for environmental and economic reasons and because I’m appalled by the animal cruelty that comes hand in hand with the mass production and consumption of animal products. So I’m all for in vitro meat.

PETA’s with me. In a rare instance of being in favor of something, they’re offering $1,000,000 to the first scientist to make lab-grown meat commercially viable.

If a day comes when omnivores can wrap their heads around the idea of eating meat grown in a lab and in vitro meat becomes available at markets, I’ll be the first in line to purchase some lab-grown bacon.

Because a vote in favor of lab-grown meat is a vote against farm-grown meat. Here’s hoping lab-grown meat eventually replaces farm-grown meat completely, eliminating the factory farming industry and all the cruelty, waste, and bullshit (figurative and literal) that surrounds it.

1 comment:

  1. Call me a cynic here, but I don’t believe this lab-grown meat is entirely altruistic. This smells of corporate consumers of cheap meat products driving for an even cheaper source. If they don’t have to raise an animal (in any condition) that has the potential one day, to increase their margins.

    I’m absolutely in favor of this innovation, but only if the end product is a healthier meat, rather than just another way to cut down on costs, leaving the food supply no better off.