The Future of Meat? A Look at the In-Vitro Hamburger

I recently read an article by Isha Datar on CNN that discussed the new food technology being developed to create meat in a laboratory.  Similar to the methods used in stem cell technology, the artificial creation of meat is an attempt to face the issues of sustainability and animal treatment created by our modern factory farming practices.  Ms. Datar, the director of New Harvest, a nonprofit group created to promote the development of cultured meat, lists a wide variety of benefits surrounding the genesis of this new food technology.  First, and perhaps most obviously, cultured meat technology is an animal-free process, whereby no creatures are slaughtered in order to produce meat.  For those with ethical concerns involving animal treatment, in-vitro meat creation is a natural solution.  Next, Datar mentions that this new form of food technology can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of animals emitting mass amounts of pollutant gas into the atmosphere.  Lastly, she states the vast amount of innovation potential within cultured meat, comparing it to the beer industry and its massive array of choices in flavors and brewing processes.  Although I admit this new form of food technology intrigues me, I find it useful to view this conversation in a few different ways.

The “Yuck” Factor

When discussing this topic with friends, a common response to the notion of lab-formed meat was disgust.  To many, the idea of a scientist engineering their steak in a petri dish is disconcerting.  Though I also initially found the idea of in-vitro meat a bit disturbing, the reality is that much of our food in the United States is scientifically manipulated to some degree.  If a test-tube steak makes your skin crawl, perhaps you should also look into what’s added to your typical grocery store beef product.  This last point is one echoed by Datar, who implores us to discover the true “yuck” factor of the modern factory farming industry.  While we must recognize the peculiarity of in-vitro meat creation, our true disgust is better aimed at the bacterial contamination and ghastly conditions of the factory farming industrial complex.

Cultured Meat by the Numbers

The reasons behind the creation of this new food technology are valuable and admirable, but what are the practical questions being asked about in-vitro meat development?  First of all, how much meat can be created within a laboratory compared to a factory farm?  Though I have significant reservations with factory farming, I also understand that they operate on a model of strict efficiency.  If cultured meat creation cannot live up to the cost-effectiveness of our current mode of meat production, I question the viability of the practice in the future from a strictly financial perspective (which is the only perspective that matters to many).  Further, how long is the process to create a consumable piece of meat?  If this process is significantly quicker than the “natural” life cycle of a cow or chicken before it is typically slaughtered, then the in-vitro meat system may have an advantage over our current practice.  Finally, what are the costs attached to cultured meat creation?  Because the research for this practice have been funded exclusively through private donations, we must also ask how this process could be implemented on a mass scale, and if the technology involved could be adopted at reasonable costs.  If we can match the practical implementation of cultured meat production with its inherent theoretical value, then I see the practice as one that could indeed transform the way we eat meat.

Some Final Thoughts

Innovative and novel, the advent of in-vitro meat is already upon us.  In August, a group of three test subjects tried their first in-vitro hamburger.  The group consensus was that the burger was a bit dry, but the magnitude of the moment should not be understated.  Through tireless research and significant fundraising, we now have the capacity to create meat without taking it from the body of an animal.  Regardless of your stance on this development, it is astounding to think of the concept and its potential benefits.  At the same time, I also wonder about the larger questions this development presents to us as humans.  Will technology be the vehicle of our redemption from the current environmental crisis we face, or will it be a change in our behavior?  Can this new form of production really satisfy our taste for meat? Should the same ethical arguments be addressed here as they are with stem cell research or cloning?  These are questions that deserve attention, but I will conclude by saying that this new innovation of in-vitro meat production has given me a degree of hope.  There is no doubt in my mind that our modern eating habits and farming practices are destroying the earth, and alternative action must be taken.  Perhaps the in-vitro burger is a good start.

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