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.

How Would You Like Your Test Tube Burger?

Right now they are very rare (get it?). But scientists, as they will, are plowing ahead with the development of in vitro meat, also dubbed Frankenmeat.

Isn't technology fun?

From a moral and environmental point of view, the logic is unassailable:

So-called test-tube meat is being developed to slash the environmental impacts of factory farming, improve consumer health and lessen the suffering of animals. Last June, an Oxford University study concluded that compared with conventionally grown and produced meat, “in vitro” or “cultured” meat would generate 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, use 45% less energy, reduce land use by 99% and cut water use by 96%.

“Animal farming is by far the biggest ongoing global catastrophe,” Patrick Brown of the Stanford University School of Medicine told reporters, AFP says. “More to the point, it’s incredibly ready to topple … it’s inefficient technology that hasn’t changed fundamentally for millennia.”

From a culinary point of view it sounds (and looks–so far) pretty disgusting.

Yum. Can't wait.

The meat-eating world is already starting to argue that it will be incumbent upon vegans and vegetarians to eat the stuff, to help it take off commercially.

Actually, I think it is incumbent upon me to keep making the argument that the simplest thing is for people to stop eating meat (why do some technological solutions sometimes seem so grotesque? Not sure I want to see what unintended consequences Frankenmeat will arrive with). And that meat should be taxed according to the environmental and health costs it imposes on the planet (it would be impossible to quantify or even compensate for the suffering factory meat-farming inflicts on animals).

Simply making people pay what meat really costs would be by far the fastest and simplest way to solve the meat problem (and the strongest incentive for going vegetarian). And for any die-hards who would prefer test-tube meat to no meat at all, the right price on factory-farmed meat would make lab-farmed meat commercially viable in a hurry.

So, no thanks. I’ll pass on that Frankenburger.