Would you eat meat grown in a test tube?
Published Saturday, March 10, 2012 9:53PM EST
When a Dutch scientist declared last month that he could have the world's first lab-grown hamburger on the grill by October, the Internet was abuzz with "Frankenmeat" discussions.
Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, has been growing strips of meat in a Petri dish from animal stem cells and hopes to have enough of them to cook a burger patty this fall.
Would you eat it?
While man-made meat might be an answer to growing global concerns over commercial meat production and consumption, the ethical implications are incredibly complicated.
Animal activists are hailing the announcement as the first step toward ending the world's dependence on controversial livestock farming practices and slaughterhouses.
Environmentalists say producing meat in the lab would be greener because it requires much less energy, land and water.
Others say test-tube meat could help alleviate world hunger.
But it also raises ethical questions about genetically engineered food and the future of the human diet, said Chris MacDonald, a Halifax philosophy professor who blogs about food ethics.
"If you're concerned about animal cruelty and inhumane conditions in slaughterhouses, then this sounds like a fantastic solution," MacDonald said in a phone interview from Toronto, where he is currently a visiting professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management.
Although Post's hamburger has renewed discussions on the topic, the concept of lab-grown meat is not a new idea. Scientists have been dabbling in it for years.
MacDonald pointed out that reactions to test-tube meat vary among vegetarians and vegans, depending on their reasons for not eating meat. For those who are opposed to any kind of animal product consumption, for example, meat made from animal stem cells won't make a difference.
Those who are against the industrialization of food also won't be satisfied, MacDonald said.
"In vitro meat is definitely industrial, however you look at it."
MacDonald also warned of another, potentially larger ethical issue at play.
"Once you can grow beef in a vat, what are you going to do next? It makes it much, much easier to produce genetically modified meat," he said. "Lab managers may think: ‘We can grow beef. Now, how can we tinker with it?
"Who in the food industry isn't going to be charmed by the possibilities?"
What science may bring to our dinner tables is speculative, of course, but some non-meat eaters have already made up their minds.
"I personally wouldn't eat lab-grown meat because I prefer to eat natural plant-based sources of protein such as legumes, beans, and grains," Angela Liddon, a Toronto vegan who runs a food blog, said in an email. "I'd take a hearty black beat burger over lab-grown meat any day."
David Alexander, executive director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association, said most vegetarians have already figured out how to substitute meat with other hearty, tasty foods. There are also meat-flavoured products for those who have a hard time parting with the taste of bacon or hot dogs.
"To be honest, I think it's more interesting to meat eaters than it is to vegetarians," he said of lab-grown meat in a phone interview.
Others point out that Post is using stem cells taken from slaughterhouse leftovers to create the much-anticipated hamburger. The scientist has said the goal is to only harvest stem cells from live animals in the future.
Still, Liddon said, "when I think beyond my initial state of repulsion, I can see that lab-grown meat could be beneficial if it replaces the need for slaughtering billions of mass-produced animals each year and also reduces the ecological footprint."
And that's why organizations like People for Ethical Treatment of Animals are fully behind the test-tube meat project. PETA has funded scientists working to create meat alternatives and even offered $1 million to the first one who comes up with a viable, lab-grown chicken substitute.
"Of course, people are going to be divided on this issue," PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in a phone interview from Los Angeles this week. "Even within our own organization, our own executive, we've had people opposed to (test-tube meat)."
PETA's main concern is animal welfare, so anything that eliminates animal suffering in the food production system is welcomed, Newkirk said.
She said PETA "wholeheartedly" supports efforts to grow meat in labs.
"We're pragmatists, not purists," she said.
It remains to be seen whether test-tube meat will ever reach the mass market at affordable prices, or if it will even become a rare treat at exclusive supper clubs.
Post's hamburger project, backed by an anonymous donor, will cost more than $300,000.
But all new technologies are prohibitively expensive at first, and the food industry is highly adaptable to new products and consumer demands, MacDonald said.
Newkirk said acceptance of lab-grown meat will likely come gradually, as people get over the 'yuck factor.'
"The race is on" among scientists to produce consumer-friendly meat, she said.
"This is going to be highly competitive."