Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.

Do We Really Need To Reinvent Food?

There are two basic approaches to diminishing or eliminating the environmental, health and animal welfare impacts of easting animal protein.

One is to reinvent meat and animal protein by creating plant-based substitutes, and Kate Murphy in the New York Times takes a look at all the venture capital and brainpower that Silicon Valley is throwing into this approach:

Call it Food 2.0.

Following Steve Jobs’s credo that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts….

Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.

“We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,” said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.

I’m pretty much down with anything that can help people move away from meat and animal protein. But replacing the flavor and texture of meat or dairy is very, very hard to do. I’ve tried most of the Food 2.0 alternatives that are for sale and while some aren’t revolting, or have a bland, neutral taste and feel, none taste anything like the thing they are trying to replace. And they are highly processed and packaged.

The second approach is to simply move on from meat and animal protein without trying to replace it. There is a world of good food out there that is all-natural vegan and vegetarian. When I went vegetarian, and then vegan,  I missed meat and I missed Half and Half in my coffee. I quickly discovered that there were no true substitutes, and that instead of vainly seeking to find a perfect substitute I would waste less time, and experience less disappointment, if I simply adopted new cuisines and recipes (Indian, Asian, Latino) that don’t rely on meat or animal protein. They are out there, folks. And they are delicious.

And you know what happened? I stopped missing meat and cream, and started craving two things: vegetables (though my wife can’t believe that I sometimes want to eat brussels sprouts for breakfast) and unprocessed food. And that makes eating pretty enjoyable and easy.

And sorry Silicon Valley: no Frankenfoods are required.