Cultured Meat, PETA, and Mandel's Cow
Technology has finally made vegetarians an offer they can't refuse -- maybe.
Dr. Mark Post's group at Maastricht University have made "cultured" meat by extracting muscle stem cells from cows, pigs, or chickens and multiplying them in a growth medium. The stem cells then develop into muscle cells that, with a little electrical stimulation, "bulk up" into solid muscle-fiber/bundles. These continue to grow when continuously supplied with additional nutrients by means of soluble-polymer duct systems. The end result is million-cell centimeter-long strips of meat tissue.
At a recent demonstration in London, 20,000 test strips were combined with breadcrumbs and fried into a single hamburger. Tasters said that the burger was dry and a bit lacking in flavor -- but it was like eating beef.
We should have seen it coming. As Technovelgy reminds us:
On January 17, 1912, Nobel prize-winning physician Dr. Alexis Carrel placed a part of a chicken's embryo heart in a nutrient medium in a glass flask of his own design. Every forty-eight hours the tissue doubled in size and was transferred to a new flask. Twenty years later, it was still growing.
Science fiction writers have toyed with this idea, the most notable example being Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, in which a gigantic ever-growing algae-nourished blob of white meat called "Chicken Little" provides most of the world's meat.
Chicken Little grew and grew, as she had been growing for decades. Since she had started as a lump of heart tissue, she didn't know any better than to...grow and fill her concrete vault and keep growing...As long as she got nutrient, she grew.
The idea does have at least an ethical appeal. Some vegetarians, such as Post's assistant Helen Breewood, claim they would be willing to eat cultured meat. On the other side of the spectrum, hardcore carnivores (such as me) who hire others to slaughter their meat might ease their consciences by switching to the factory-grown product.
Dr. Post admits that the goal of commercial cultured meat is at least 10 years away. The present product lacks color, fat, and taste and would cost over $30 per pound. The issues of nutrition, safety, and long-range healthiness have not even begun to be addressed. In short, the ultimate practicality of the concept is still in doubt.
By current standards, Dr. Post's press release seems to have been relatively restrained. Nonetheless, journalists and animal-rights advocates have enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon of total elimination of animal meat, with their customary disregard for the facts or unintended consequences.
The BBC article cites an environmental study as concluding that "lab grown beef would use 45% less energy than globally typical cattle farming, produce 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, and require 99% less land." Most journalists swallowed this statement uncritically. However, the actual study showed that conventional poultry farming uses even less energy than cultured meat and much less land or water than beef. Only a few journalists, such as Ariel Schwartz, took the trouble to read the article and discuss the issue rationally.
Environmentalist groups have been more cautious and even skeptical about envisioning ranch land being reclaimed as forests or nature preserves. And they would do well to remain so. If ranch land isn't used for raising cattle, it will be converted for other profitable uses, such as factories or real estate developments. Frankly, I prefer the ranches.
Much more naive is the statement from a PETA website that "in vitro technology will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer*." All of this might be true, but isn't PETA is supposed to be looking out for the animals' interests? Do these people really think that if cattle are no longer used for food, ranchers will continue to care for them as pets? Instead, most beef cattle would probably be "phased out" by increased rates of slaughter. Is that what PETA wants?
The question of what the cows want was considered by Oscar Mandel in one of his delightful Gobble-Up Stories. The heroine of "The Journey of a Cow" discovers that she and her fellow cattle are being lavishly fed so that they can be slaughtered for meat. Hearing that cattle are treated as gods and goddesses in India -- worshiped instead of broiled -- she makes a long and dangerous journey there. She soon discovers that cows lead a hungry and miserable life in India, where humans chase them away from all but the meanest food.
She could not make up her mind what to do next. Remain where she was, live out her natural life as a goddess but live it out in misery? Or return to the joys of Carinthia, so sure but ever so brief? I have heard that she is in India to this day debating with herself, because she cannot decide. And neither can I.
But PETA knows better. William F. Buckley once complained about Eleanor Roosevelt's "capacity to oversimplify problems," but this failing -- naively advocating solutions that cause unintended disasters -- is endemic among liberal idealists. Consider, for example:
- ObamaCare causing many restaurant workers to be downgraded to part-time jobs.
- Rachel Carson's campaign against DDT, that saved birds' eggs but may also have caused millions of deaths from malaria.
- Greenpeace's ill-advised war against golden rice, because genetic engineering is bad, bad, bad.
In summary, any major changes in our way of life are bound to have many ramifications, some of which are difficult to predict. Therefore, such programs should not be blindly rushed into but rather approached carefully, considering pros and cons and gathering as much data as possible. In such efforts, sensation-hungry journalists and single-issue advocates are not a help, but rather a vexing part of the problem.