Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Imagine that one day you will go to your local supermarket and find, along the usual cuts of sirloin and pork chops from the usual cows and pigs, lab-grown sirloin and pork chops. Further down the counter, you will find chicken breasts, natural and lab-grown, and, across the hall, natural and lab-grown tilapia fillets. A yellow label is all you have to tell the difference between the two: natural vs. lab-grown meat. Which one would you choose? At least today, my bet is that the vast majority of people would choose the "natural" meats, as opposed to the lab-grown ones, even if scientists guarantee that there isn't any obvious difference between the two at the hormonal, nutritional, or molecular level.
Why is that?
I can hear echoes of what I call the Frankenstein Syndrome, the irrational fear of science going where it hasn't gone before. If we grow vegetables, why can't we grow meat?
If this sounds like something from a scifi movie, think again. Dozens of laboratories around the world are pursuing the elusive feat of producing lab-grown meat, as Michael Specter explored in his somewhat recent New Yorker article "Test-Tube Burgers."
In 1999, Willem van Eelen, a Dutch entrepreneur, finally managed to get U.S. and international patents for the "industrial production of meat using cell culture methods." After much effort, van Eeelen also convinced the Dutch government to fund research in cell-cultured meats; scientists are beginning to take the idea seriously.
When we say we eat meat, we mostly mean eating muscular tissue of various animals. (Writing these lines makes me realize even more strongly why I'm a vegetarian.) In-vitro meat can be produced in a petri dish, at least in principle, by placing a few cells in a nutrient solution and coax them into proliferating.
"If people are unwilling to stop eating animals by the billions, then what a joy to be able to give them animal flesh that comes without the horror of the slaughterhouse, the transport truck, the mutilations, pain and suffering of factory farming," mused Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Apart from the obvious ethical advantages (although cattle and chicken and pig farmers may violently disagree), there are clear environmental advantages as well: animal farming consumes enormous amounts of natural resources, from water to energy, not to speak of the deforestation that comes with the package. Also, anyone who has reservations about lab-grown meat should visit a slaughterhouse and then a laboratory, and compare the two.
So, the whole thing seems like a no-brainer, from many points of view. Assuming that lab-grown meat is a viable future enterprise, will people eat it? Note that this is very different from cloned meat, as it doesn't necessarily involve any form of genetic manipulation. Still, there are lessons to learn from the negative public reactions to genetically-modified food.
To a large extent, the issue revolves around the public perception of scientific practices and their credibility. Will people believe what scientists working for the lab-grown meat industry say? As we have seen with the whole global warming issue, the days when scientists were equated with national heroes are long gone. Things get further embroiled when scientists work for the private industry: think of the difference in opinion between what most cancer experts say about the many evils of smoking from those who work for the cigarette companies. Given that the world consumes about 285 million tons of meat every year, the potential market, even if only a fraction of the public will buy lab-grown meat, is huge. Some scientists trying to create viable lab-grown meat may truly be trying to solve world hunger; others may simply be trying to make money.
Hopefully, scientists working for the government and those in academia (and not financed by the lab-grown industry) will join efforts to issue some kind of official public guideline. There may be efficiently-timed campaigns from scientific organizations and the government to restore people's credibility in the scientific endeavor. If people, including politicians, won't listen to our distinguished members of the National Academy of Sciences, who will they listen to when it comes to scientific issues? Meanwhile, it may not be a bad idea to reconsider your eating habits. After all, who needs meat anyway?