Thursday, December 3, 2009

Veggie Might: Newsflash! Scientists Getting Closer to Lab-grown Meat

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian. The illustration is borrowed from the uber-talented Natalie Dee.

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, funded by the Dutch government and a sausage maker, are getting close to viable lab-grown meat replacement. According to Sunday’s Telegraph, they “have created what was described as soggy pork and are now investigating ways to improve the muscle tissue in the hope that people will one day want to eat it.”

The Sunday Times reports that while, “the scientists have not tasted it...they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.”

In April 2008, PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk issued a challenge to Scientists Everywhere: figure out how to grow meat in the lab, and we’ll stop actin’ the fool all over the place and give you a million dollars*. Turns out that Newkirk’s gauntlet toss, which came just weeks after the In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway, was unnecessary.

Scientists Everywhere were already on it, driven by their own innate “what happens if I do this?” genes. They also claim to be spurred by a quest to reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry and encouraged by NASA researchers’ 2002 “success” with tank-grown fish fillets, born of a few goldfish cells and "fetal bovine serum" (blargh).

The Times article is careful to mention no one is allowed by law to taste these delicacies yet, but researchers believe they will have a viable meat replicant within five years—missing the PETA deadline by three and forfeiting the prize money. The science dude(tte)s don’t seem to mind. (See the “what if I go like this?” genes.)

My first reaction to this news is “Eeeewww!” But then, I remember that I just had faux turkey for Thanksgiving. So what am I getting all skeeved out about? Probably “fetal bovine serum,” for starters.

Essentially, three factors come into play for me: an existing environmental crisis that would benefit greatly from the reduction, if not elimination, of industrial farming; animals that would benefit from not being killed for food; and concerns about GMO and bioengineered food. The former two seem like big wins.

Factory farming is a major contributor to the global environmental crisis. According to Science News, “roughly half of the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions due to human diets come from meat even though beef, pork and chicken together account for only about 14 percent of what people eat.” Plus, consider the increasing number of food safety scares every year: from mad cow-, e-coli-, and salmonella-tainted meat to poisoned produce from feedlot runoff. Safe, sterile test-tube meat isn’t sounding so bad…

But then there’s that pesky GMO-bioengineering issue. I know that processed foods are not as nutritious as whole foods. But what no one knows are the long term effects of genetically modified organisms in our corn, wheat, and soybeans. How different is Petri meat from Bt corn?

So what do you think of all this fiddling around in the lab? Vegetarians, would you eat meat if it didn’t come from an animal? Omnivores, would you consider a bioengineered meat replacement if it helped the environment? Spill in the comments. I’d love to hear what y’all think.

*Psych! PETA will never stop actin’ the fool.


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