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In-Vitro Meat: The Future Of Eating January 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Science.
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This isn’t exactly news since this type of research has been going on for awhile now but it’s always nice to see efforts like this getting recognition.

A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering “cultured” meat.

It’s a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way … on the hoof.

The benefits to this type of technology are numerous and the article does a good job of explaining them.  First and foremost is the obvious benefit of producing large quantities of meat without the need to slaughter an animal.  No one can argue that the conditions for animals in industrial meat production are appalling nor that the animals clearly suffer in such an environment.   Even on more “traditional” farms which like to boast of how well their animals are treated still end up knocking them out and slitting their throats.

Second is the ecological impact of traditional meat production.

Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

I’ve heard some people object that these figures aren’t accurate since cows naturally eat grass, which costs nothing for humans to produce and has little ecological impact.  That’s true, cows naturally eat grass, but anyone who’s taken a look at meat production knows that it’s anything but natural.  The vast majority of animals raised for meat consumption (cows, pigs, fish) are fed on corn.  That’s right, they’re feeding corn to fish.

Speaking of natural, many foresee a major stumbling block for in-vitro meat in the public’s new fascination with natural goods.  The idea is that people will be hesitant to eat food grown in a lab.  Considering the furor over genetically modified crops (see Frankenfood) that’s probably not an outrageous assumption.  However this is more a question of branding than an actual problem with the technology.  Keep in mind, farming is a completely unnatural practice yet there aren’t many people returning to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Ultimately though what will make or break this technology is the price.  Meat production is expensive and a product that promises all the great taste for half the cost, so to speak, has a good chance at succeeding.  After all, much as many of us would like it not to be so people just like the taste of meat.