Lab Meat

In The Conscience of a Carnivore (“It’s time to stop killing meat and start growing it”), William Saletan makes an eloquent moral case for our coming ability to grow meat in giant petri dishes, rather than raising it the old-fashioned way:

Growing meat like this will be good for us in lots of ways. We’ll be able to make beef with no fat, or with good fat transplanted from fish. We’ll avoid bird flu, mad-cow disease, and salmonella. We’ll scale back the land consumption and pollution involved in cattle farming. But 300 years from now, when our descendants look back at slaughterhouses the way we look back at slavery, they won’t remember the benefits to us, any more than they’ll remember our dried-up tears for a horse. They’ll want to know whether we saw the moral calling of our age.

Apparently they’ve already succeeded in growing fish flesh in a dish, which looked and smelled good enough to eat (though FDA rules didn’t allow them to taste it). Pork isn’t far behind.

To me, lab meat seems like the ultimate extension of what we already do with factory farming and slaughtering, in terms of its sterility and the way it removes us from the natural life/death cycle. But lab meat has the added moral advantage of not involving sentient life, which should place a large swath of vegetarians and Buddhists in an interesting position.

The piece is also available as a podcast (Slate has become my favorite podcast subscription). See also: Why meat may not be murder.

Music: Stereolab :: Visionary Road Maps

8 Replies to “Lab Meat”

  1. Umm, I think the Joel Salatin who runs Polyface Farms is different than the William Salatan who writes about science & tech for Slate…

    BUT — it is an interesting question, whether Buddhists could eat Petri dish meat! Probably yes. But there’s another obstacle, not just for vegies but for all humans: For some reason the notion of eating a big slab of in vitro-grown pork flesh seems, well, rather revolting…

  2. D’oh! Thanks Dylan – I’ll tweak that.

    Finding humane lab meat more revolting than slaughtered natural meat is an excellent example of the “cognitive dissonance” referred to at the start of that article (not saying I disagree with you, only that it’s not rational to feel that way).

  3. The reference to the MIT human body parts experiments made me immediately expand your thought: Finally vegetarians, Buddhists, and cannibals could all sit down to a Bar-B-Q table together. :-O

  4. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 14 years. I’ve lost the taste for it. The smell of roast chicken grosses me out as does the feel of animal fat on my fingers.

    So I’m not sure if I would even enjoy meat cultured in a lab.

    But if it reduces animal suffering, I’m all for it.

  5. I’m not sure the vegans will be down with lab meat. Your have to start with a cell, and that cell will come from an animal. Now, maybe you can get that first meat cell without killing the animal (scrape it from the inside of the steer’s cheek perhaps).
    There’s another issue here, and that is, what will be the “feedstock” for this process– ie, what do you feed the cells to make them grow? Nothing comes from nothing, so as with any creative biological process, there’s got to be a primary source of energy, as well as nitrogen, carbon, etc. Will that be more or less sustainable than, say, grass?

  6. Michael –

    There’s a lot of animal-free nutrient media available. I believe right now growing lab meat for consumption would be highly cost prohibitive. Not only are the reagents to grow the meat very expensive but to run a highly sterile environment would be not be cost effective. I work in a research lab and we use antibiotics to keep our cultures sterile. We also use growth supplements to get the cells to grow well. People want meat that is untreated and I don’t believe you can get that by growing lab meat.

  7. Gattaca, out of curiosity, are the animal-free nutrients fossil-fuel based? (tie-ing back to the question of sustainability and enviro impact).

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