Comment »Posted on Thursday 23 February 2012 at 11:10 am by Sam Wong
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Sam Wong is a former contributor to Just A Theory who now blogs at his own site. Here’s his take on in vitro meat….

It doesn’t look very appetising, but this is the future of meat. Stem cells will be harvested from a few animals (donor kebabs?) and muscle tissue grown on an industrial scale, feeding our carniverous appetites with a greatly reduced impact on the environment. This week, Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University announced that he expects to serve a prototype lab-grown burger by the end of the year. Once the technology has been scaled up, it will mean improved efficiency, lower emissions, and reduced animal suffering.

The benefits of in vitro meat are so overwhelming that it would take an Olympic-standard reactionary thinker not to see it as a desirable goal. Not so much a stick-in-the-mud as a stick sealed in a nuclear bunker deep underground, with stockpiles of luncheon meat for sustenance and archived copies of the Daily Mail to feed their suspicion of change. Surely the generation that grew up with spam should have no trouble accepting meat that has little resemblance to anything that occurs in nature?

Step forward Rose Prince, a columnist with the Daily Telegraph. “Technologies such as this unnerve us because they interfere with the magnificently sedate process of evolution,” she writes. “We like to think what we eat is unaltered and as natural as possible.”

Even by her paper’s standards, this is a heroically regressive stance. Only the most elite conservatives can express distaste for tinkering with animal evolution, an endeavour which humans began over 10,000 years ago when they started to domesticate dogs and goats.

She continues: “While less land will be used for livestock, I can’t see that there is a great need for it for other uses.”

It must be awfully nice living in Rose’s bubble, where no one ever goes hungry and there’s plenty of room for the world to accommodate 9 billion people by 2050.

I’m sure in vitro meat will be unpalatable to a lot of people to begin with, but if we can make it taste like the real thing I’m sure we’ll have no problem wolfing it down eventually. The pace of technological development in recent decades shows us that humans are very capable of accepting and adapting to changes might initially have seemed severe. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to imagine that in 50 years’ time, eating flesh that came from a real animal might seem as disgusting as eating lab-grown meat seems to us now. “When I was your age, we ate chicken wings, cow arse, lamb legs and pig ribs,” I’ll tell my grandchildren, and they will think I’m a barbarian.

Animal rights campaigners have already thrown their support behind in vitro meat development, with Peta offering a $1 million prize for the first person to produce a commercially viable chicken substitute. Professor Post’s research is being funded by a wealthy backer who is currently anonymous, but apparently very well-known. My guess is it’s someone famously preoccupied with animal welfare. Maybe Paul McCartney – he has a history of trying to recreate phenomenally popular products with substandard fare labelled “Wings”.

Surprisingly, the most progressive viewpoint I’ve come across is in the Daily Mail‘s comment thread. Roscoe, from Long Beach, California, writes:

I love the idea that we can now consume ‘meat’ products previously considered anathema, such as panda and tiger. In fact, I imagine that any animal’s protein could be made this way. Dolphin, perhaps, or chimpanzee. Actually, this could lead to a kind of celebrity cannibalism, where our favorite stars of music, stage, TV, and film provide stem cells, which could then be grown into delicious meat products. “Yeah, I’ll have the Daniel Radcliffe burger, and the wife will have the low fat Kate Moss, and we’ll take two Emeli Sand├ęs for the kids.”

Well done, Roscoe. You are the one person who has really got to grips with where this technology could take us. It might make you real the label more carefully before putting a jar of Lloyd Grossman pasta sauce in your shopping basket though.

If you find the idea of lab-grown meat scary, just remember it’s the burger itself that will be petri-fried.


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