For years I’ve been reading about the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. Beef production creates more CO2 than autos, factory farm conditions are unhealthy and awful, and veggies are healthier too! But let me be frank: I really really really like bacon. I can cut down on my meat intake, no problem! I only eat it with friends and relatives. But say good bye to succulent chicken breast, or slow-cooked BBQ ribs… forever? Well there’s only so much a girl can do, my friends.
So I suppose it’s not surprising that some people are looking for meat alternatives, and I’m not talking about Tofurkey. I’m talking about real meat, but minus the animal.
PETA, the folks who brought you ultra-soft vegetarian porn and plenty of responsible living tips, is offering 1 million dollars to “the first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices” (contest details here)
That’s right, it’s lab-grown meat that never met its maker – namely, an animal.
Though no one has yet claimed the prize, I can already see controversy on the issue. Would you eat test-tube meat? If someone snuck you a lab-steak, would you know the difference? Would producers be required to label the product or would it go incognito like GMOs? And what about GMO lab-meat?
EcoGeek also opens a whole new door of possibilities. What does whale taste like, and is it OK to eat it if no whales were harmed in the making of your meal? How about an endangered tiger-steak or hippo pot roast? Would you sample lab-grown humming bird hearts? They might be tasty.
The issue at hand is our definition of “meat” and concepts of food. Given the recent controversy and publicity within our meat mass-production industry, it’s no surprise that people are starting to ask if there’s a better way. But where do we draw the line between the food we grow and the food we create?
I must admit my own trepidation on the concept. Though I’ll try anything once, the idea of my chicken breast slowly forming in a petri dish isn’t exactly appetizing. On the same token, I also believe it’s important to avoid essentialist ideas of “purity” and “essence” that I see so frequently in debates about food, animals, and the mythical Mother Nature. Is there some quality of protein and fat that changes when grown in different environments? Is it the molecular makeup or strategy of growth that’s important in food? After all, a lab is much cleaner than a chicken and I doubt a lab-meat product would hit supermarkets unless the quality of the meat was comparable to animal-based products. When we slaughter an animal, we don’t eat all of its parts, and sometimes we’d rather not know where the extra bits end up.
By removing the resources to breed, feed, raise, and slaughter an animal – simultaneously removing questions of environmental impact and humane treatment – we could dramatically streamline a growing international industry. Maybe we could even make meat taste better with some creative “growth techniques”.
Since this is just a contest and no one has successfully managed in vitro meat yet, I’ll be content to sit back and watch the show. I’m hoping for some real fireworks on this one! But at the end of the day it will be consumers who decide, and I sincerely hope people will take a moment to read the facts before hitting their local grocery. If, by chance, this turns out to be a better and tasty technology, it would be a shame to shun it on nostalgic ideas of a along-gone farmland and its inhabitants lined up for slaughter.
Image courtesy of MyTeeSpot.com