In vitro meat: A bunch of bologna?

This article was written on behalf of ENVI 335: Science and Citizenship, taught by Roopali Phadke. There were six class members who contributed to the discussion and three who contributed to the article: Laura Humes, Claire Runquist and Karen Weldon.

Brought to you by ENVI 335 Science and Citizenship

Picture your favorite celebrity. Perhaps it’s Jennifer Lawrence, one of the current “it girls” of Hollywood. Now imagine that you can get even closer to that person by eating a sausage made from J-Law cell cultures. Or maybe you aren’t that into celebrities and are more of a knitting type of person. How often do you get to knit with strings of meat? Okay, so maybe you don’t have the hand-eye coordination to knit. What if you could paint with your meat? Mix new flavors in your own personal bioreactor? With the new science delving into in vitro meat, all of this could happen (and has been proposed). In vitro meat adds a whole new dynamic to the discussion surrounding meat and food, including issues of environmentalism, ethics and economics­—not to mention the yuck factor!

With in vitro meat filling the papers with outrageous stories, it can be hard to untangle the science from the tabloid reporting. While we consume food products that have been scientifically engineered nearly every day (think Twinkies, GMO corn or bologna), in vitro meat differs from other scientifically engineered foods in that the cells are generated through a tissue culture and cloning process that creates entirely new meat cells, rather than modifying existing cells.

The first in vitro burger was unveiled in London in August of 2013 and cooked and eaten during a live news telecast. The burger was created by a team of Dutch scientists, who spent the equivalent of nearly $350,000 creating the burger. The funding was provided by Google cofounder Sergey Brin. In 2008, it cost $1 million for a 250g piece of in vitro meat (about the size of a sirloin steak).

Because the technology is so expensive, in vitro meat is not yet a commercially viable option. But, as researchers continue to develop new methods of in vitro meat cultivation, it will be important for us, as consumers, to examine the implications this technology might have if widely adopted. We need to consider the economic, ethical, environmental and sociocultural implications of in vitro meat upstream of the controversy it could create when released on a wide scale.

For instance, should we consider in vitro meat as an ethical meat “alternative,” something that vegetarians should embrace? After all, animal rights groups like PETA are heralding the meat as humane, a better option than eating animals growing up in the overcrowded conditions of a factory farm. Additionally, volunteer tasters have given it fairly good reviews and scientists are confident that taste can only improve. If consumers can get over the ‘gross factor’ of eating meat grown from tissue cells, like tempeh and seitan, it could be the newest meat “alternative.” Moreover, for those of us worried about the energy wasted through meat production, this could be a way to allow Americans to continue eating meat at current levels and developing countries to continue increasing meat consumption, while—if the science pulls through—using less energy.

If Café Mac numbers are any examples, our hunger for animal protein isn’t going away; this year Cafe Mac is serving twice as much bacon and sausage at brunch as it did last year, so in vitro meat could be a way to sustain such an appetite. However, instead of focusing on increasing meat production, maybe we should be focusing on decreasing consumption. Through developing technologies for in vitro meat, perhaps we are avoiding the main problem of being a culture based on eating animal protein.

Thinking into the future, who would have access to this food? Considering the current production costs, in vitro meat could become a specialty food sold at Whole Foods or local co-ops, available only to the upper and middle class. Alternatively, the production costs could go way down and it could become the newest “fake” meat for those who could not afford the actual stuff. It could become a food to eaten mostly in developing countries, or perhaps an item on the dollar menu at McDonalds or Arby’s.

Finally, who would be in control of this new technology? Like GMOs, perhaps in vitro meat could be a patented technology, held only in the hands of a few. Alternatively, like seitan or other meat alternatives, in vitro meat might become simply another “recipe” utilized by food companies around the world. In either case, it’s pretty hard to imagine a small family in vitro meat factory taking the place of a family farm. If anything, moving to an in vitro meat world would simply increase the industrialized nature of the current food system.

Before in vitro meat is released into the market, it’s necessary to study and analyze its ethical, environmental, sociocultural and economic benefits. Because the technology to mass produce in vitro meat in a commercially viable way hasn’t been developed, it’s currently difficult to understand what the impacts of in vitro meat may have. At this point, we can only make vague predictions.

Therefore, we urge that the precautionary principle be used before moving forward with the mass production of in vitro meat. Before releasing in vitro meat into the market, we should fully develop the technology. Additionally, government or nongovernmental groups outside of the industry should create models and conduct feasibility studies to analyze this technology’s potential costs, distribution, energy consumption and health implications, to ensure that in vitro meat is actually a viable solution to the overconsumption of meat. While political inertia may make this a challenging study to push forward, it’s necessary before we actually start chowing down on knitted steaks and Jennifer Lawrence salami.