31 August 2011

Vat Meat

Manufacturing Meat
I've been postponing a post on vat meat.  Seems like every month or so I see something on making meat in a lab.  These blurbs overflow with 'meat apologism' to sate bacon-loving hipsters and others who have guilt but just can't quit meat.  I know many people miss meat to an amazing degree, but I've never really felt that.  Maybe I miss convenience, but that's minor.  So I have been thinking of a succinct reply to the issue of vat meat or in-vitro meat other than rolling my eyes.  I don't think I've succeeded, so feel free to roll your eyes instead.

Here are the main issues concerned:

Food Security:  This all depends on cost.  Many of the above-linked articles mention this feed-the-world aspect, as do many pronouncements regarding new foodstuffs.  I'll believe it when I see it.

Health:  I see a marginal improvement here over factory farmed meat.  I'm confident the level of cholesterol and fat can be modified to some extent.  Yet I doubt the vat meat will catch up with an animal-free diet.

Sustainability:  Will the resources going in to this be much more than what we get out?  I think it can be more efficient to grow only a blob of muscle and not the bones, skin, hair, brain, and so on.  However, it all depends on what and how much is fed to the vat meat to make it grow.

Woo:  Woo is that irrationality that is always in play with such visceral and emotional choices.  People really like the whole charade that is natural food.  Some would rather smoke natural cigarettes than eat something sciency, even if the former is much more likely to kill them.  The only way I see around this is to suppress labeling so a consumer does not know if the meat they bought came from a factory farm or not.  This has certainly worked in the past, so it should work here as well.

Taste:  It bugs me that this is a main issue.  I don't think anyone likes the flavor meat with no additions or adulterations.  Most omnivores char it, season it, and put it with other ingredients, burying the flavor of the meat.  Then at the next meal, they eat something different.  But that's beside the point.  Theoretically the meat from the lab will taste the same as meat from the factory farm, though no one has tasted the progress so far.  So take that entire lack of empirical evidence how you will.

Cost:  That's the big issue.  I don't hear much about companies doing this, only labs.  This hints that the potential profits are low, if not negative.  However, labs may be dabbling in this area as the technology is closely related to growing human organs in vitro and engineering meat (mostly muscle) should be easier than engineering a heart.  But I'm not sure doing this in a lab/factory will be more cost efficient than a factory farm.  Sure, they could engineer Kobe beef or some high-end stuff, but I'm not sure the people who like organic beef from cows massaged by hand will go for something from a factory.

Animal Cruelty: This is perhaps the biggest issue.  There isn't much of a point otherwise, unless cost is less than rice and beans.  After all, PETA's even offering one million dollars for the first to make in-vitro chicken within a year (guess they have a big barbeque next June).  But as I mentioned previously, unless they dramatically change the technology, they will grow the cell cultures for the in-vitro meat in a bath of fetal bovine serum (FBS), fetal horse serum (FHS), or some other liquefied aborted animal.  They do this because science does not know all the little chemicals that a cell or an organ needs to grow, so they just dump a soup on there that has more than enough.  There exist some alternatives, but I'm not sure if these researchers are using any of them.  Besides, is growing cells from an unborn calf cheaper and easier than growing the calf into a cow?

So when will this happen?  According to many of the articles, it's always five years away, which means never.  Though I think it actually will happen, just because the power of bacon and guilt is so strong.  However, once it happens in a research lab, I don't see it going too far beyond a novelty.

Would any of you, vegan or otherwise, eat such a thing as test tube meat?  What about test tube dairy?  Test tube honey?  Test tube long pig?


  1. Coincidentally, this was posted today on Friendly Atheist:

    In short, my answer is: HELL YES!

    In fact, as a 13-year vegan and animal rights activist, I'm counting on it. I loved the taste of meat and it would be nice to be able to have my cake and eat it too.

  2. Yikes. The comments on that Friendly Atheist post were unreadable.

  3. I guess I'd try the vat meat at least once and would also be excited about tube dairy which I miss pretty much as a vegan.

    And just by the way: As a biology student who's working in cell culture herself I can say that a lot of labs are currently coming to the conclusion that fetal bovine serum has some advantages compared to serum-free media, but also many disadvantages. As far as I could know the trend goes to culture media which are free from animal-derived products for reasons of infection hazards and missing reproducity.
    So I guess, even if it's not rentable yet, vat meat could really become an improvement to animal welfare in the future.


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