STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Got to tell you, when this next story idea came up at a MORNING EDITION meeting, some people did a double take, asking questions like can you really do that? Can you really make a steak without killing a cow? Can you really make a steak without ever even growing a cow? It's a question of interest to vegetarians and meat eaters alike, so NPR's Ketzel Levine investigated the world of tissue-cultured meat.
KETZEL LEVINE: I've had easier stories to tell, certainly more bucolic ones. I'd much rather describe cows grazing in meadows than their cells being grown in labs. In fact, even though the idea's been kicking around for a century, it has never seemed a good time to talk about man-made meat. But it's had some famous proponents, including that pragmatic carnivore, Winston Churchill, who in 1932 more or less said this:
Dr. BRIAN FORD (Biologist): How strange it is that we have to culture and grow a whole chicken when all I want to eat is the breast meat. The time will come when we'll be able to culture all the chicken breasts that we wish without having to sacrifice a single bird.
LEVINE: I say more or less because that was a British biologist paraphrasing. We'll meet him shortly. Anyway, Churchill was paraphrasing, too, likely inspired by the work of Alexis Carrel. At the time of Churchill's comment, Dr. Carrel had been keeping alive a cultured piece of chicken heart tissue for 20 years. It wasn't overflowing the sides of his bathtub or anything. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist kept the tissue fresh and small, but his experiment, which outlived him, fed many an imagination.
Mr. FREDERIK POHL (Author, "The Space Merchants"): My name is Frederik Pohl, and with Cyril Kornbluth, I wrote the book called "The Space Merchants."
LEVINE: In that 1952 sci-fi novel, tissue-cultured meat gets a starring, if inglorious, role. It's the starter ingredient for an ever-growing lumpen food source known affectionately as Chicken Little.
Mr. POHL: This is her nest, he said proudly. I looked and gulped. She was a grey-brown, rubbery hemisphere some 15 yards in diameter. Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh. You could see that she was alive.
LEVINE: Yum. Turns our Frederik Pohl, now almost 90, suspected his novel wouldn't stay science fiction long.
Mr. POHL: Actually, when Cyril and I wrote the book, I thought we would see much of it actually happening. Sliced chicken from the delicatessen is probably a lot like the Chicken Little meat would look.
LEVINE: Most carnivores don't fear deli meat, nor do they spend much time worrying where their meat comes from. So pity the maligned scientists who, to no one's applause, is knocking himself out this very minute to grow tissue-cultured meat. Yup, it's a happening thing in labs from Norway to North Carolina, and it's being done exactly the same way we already grow patches of human skin. All that takes is a skin cell marinated in a nutrient-rich concoction, and within a few weeks, it's pretty much ready to wear.
According to Brian Ford, our former Churchill and author of "The Future of Food," we can culture bits of all sorts of distinct tissues.
Dr. FORD: But meat is a complex mixture of tissue. Under the microscope, you can see all sorts of gristly bits and fatty bits and muscly bits, and it's this sort of mosaic of different cell types that changes cells into what we know as meat. And that is a problem that nobody has successfully, as yet, addressed.
LEVINE: But somebody is getting close.
Dr. VLADIMIR MIRONOV (Biologist, Medical University of South Carolina): I personally believe that this is inescapable future. That's sort answer.
LEVINE: Vladimir Mironov is a biologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and among that handful of scientists culturing meat from animal tissue. Dr. Mironov's long answer involves turning formless, textureless patches of the stuff into mass-produced form, like meat sheets or what we might call affectionately, shmeat. What stands between Dr. Mironov and shmeat right now is production models, production facilities, venture capital - oh, and consumer demand.
Dr. MIRONOV: Does people want it? Is market ready? That's the main question. Technology, I think, is doable, and if you have reasonable investment, it can be done. But the question is, you can't create product which nobody want to buy, or it's too expensive to buy. So the right timing - timing is everything.
LEVINE: Okay, so is this the right time? One unlikely nonprofit says yes: the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA recently announced a million-dollar contest to create commercially viable chicken meat, sacrificing neither chicken nor egg. The deadline is 2012, the contest rules Herculean, and the prize money paltry. But the thinking is pragmatic: If people must have meat, and factory farming is an animal nightmare, why not find a high-tech alternative?
Peter Singer, author of the 1975 treatise "Animal Liberation," is all for it.
Mr. PETER SINGER (Author, "Animal Liberation"): Yeah, I mean, I've always thought it would be a good thing, the same way that I think it's good that the abuse of horses for pulling loads has ended. So I think it would be good if the abuse of animals for raising them for meat were to end because we had a technological solution to that - we had an alternative.
Dr. MARGARET MELLON (Molecular Biologist, Union of Concerned Scientists): Tissue-cultured meat just doesn't make sense to me. I think it's a very bad idea.
LEVINE: Not a surprising response from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Molecular biologist Margaret Mellon believes that all our food should be grown lightly on the land, using the riches of the Earth and the power of the sun — not in a factory.
Dr. MELLON: Picture it: You've got a big compound of buildings with scientists running around tending big vats of cultured cells, making sure that they're all at a constant temperature, that the cells are being kept sterile. I mean, where does that energy come from? That's a lot of fossil fuel.
LEVINE: So here's a recap the opinions on the state of shmeat. It's animal-friendly but bad for the environment, we have the how-to but not the how-come, unleashing unknown technologies is fodder for nightmares, and at least one carnivore thinks it's real meat.
Dr. MIRONOV: If it looks like muscle, if it smell like muscle, if it tastes like muscle, that's muscle.
LEVINE: Which brings up one last point: the taste of shmeat. Chicken, right? Not so, says a source who has sampled tissue-cultured turkey. It tasted like turkey. Ketzel Levine, NPR News on the shmeat beat.