The human population is growing at an incredible rate; our appetites have swelled accordingly, and thus, so has our indulgence of meat. With projections that the global population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, increased concern for food security and sustainability has led to interesting scientific developments. Nestled among our options lies the development of cultured meat, i.e., “test-tube meat.”
Tube Steak: The Wave of the Future?
Bioengineer Andras Forgacs recently served steak chips during a live panel at South by Southwest (SXSW). The small “pink wafers” had been harvested from animal tissue samples in a laboratory. Reviews of the Frankenmeat said the material tasted like a delicious “thin piece of beef jerky” you’d never believe it “wasn’t real meat.”
A concept that’s been in development for quite some time now, PETA once campaigned for the development of cultured meat, offering a $1 million prize to the first company who could provide it in an affordable, humane manner by 2012. However, to produce just one lab-cultured hamburger costs over $330,000. In an era that embraces the more artisanal and organic, I’m lead to questioning whether or not such a thing is viable for humanity? And if so, would it be truly healthy, much less sustainable?
A Shmeat Born Every Minute
Test tube meat has several nicknames: cultured meat, victimless meat, hydroponic meat, in vitro meat, vat-grown meat and … shmeat.
CNN’s Brandon Griggs explained the cultivation process as follows: Cultured meat products are manifested from cell cultures that are harvested from animals. These cell cultures are then placed in a nutrient-rich medium that behaves like blood. When the cultured meat cells multiply, they are attached to a spongy, nutrient-soaked sheet and stretched to “increase cell size and protein content.” (Hence sheet + meat = shmeat)
Will Stem Cells Stave off Starvation?
Biotech entrepreneurs see test-tube meat as a potential response to the growing population crisis. Large scale methods of meat production “are wasteful and harmful to the environment,” writes Griggs, therefore “by comparison, [researchers believe] lab-grown meat would leave a much lighter footprint” and would help “alleviate food shortages” in parts of the world. In other words, stem cell steak would stave off starvation… and prevent the world from deep famine.
But would it really? I need you to understand this is test tube meat we’re talking about. It’s radically new and very different from anything we’re used to. One might argue that, yes, biotechnology needs to manufacture alternative food products that supplement our current agricultural models but on the other hand, who says we need them cultivated from a Petri dish? Can’t they cultivate fresh herbs and spices instead? I might be more open to that. Stem cell beef is just … pathologically horrifying.
I mean, it’s disgusting to look at. I present to you, Exhibit A.
Do you see that? That’s a sliver of stem cell meat in the making. Is that not disgusting to look at? I don’t know how long it will take fully to cultivate, but that little slice of scientific treachery costs $330k to produce, and for what? The ability to say we’ve kept cows from busting holes in the ozone layer with their noxious farts? No, thanks! I say let the cows fart ‘til the sun goes down and save the money.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but the idea of meat from a flask or straight out the Petri dish scares me most. Every time I see a Petri dish, I think of these horrible Strep throat cultures I had to take as a kid whenever the back of my mouth looked like a cushioned, pearl-tufted headboard. I just cannot associate the image of anything grown from a Petri dish as an appetizing entree on my dinner plate. Can you?
Trust me, I’m rooting for sustainable eating practices that advance our battle against world hunger. Hunger needs to be addressed before it’s ravenous and out of hand. (Then again, based upon your perspective, it already may be out of hand.) While I respect that we’re trying to combat starvation with biotechnology, I think we’re going about things the wrong way. We have plant-based diets. We have meatless Monday. We already have several sustainable solutions for feeding people that don’t involve suspicious Soylent Pink wafers or viral strains of muscle stretching its legs inside a lab container. Maybe we should lay off the tube steak and focus on something that won’t terrify us, or cost an arm and a leg to produce.