iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway

Posted: January 15, 2009 12:50 PM

Or moral, humane, or whatever you want to call it - reasons for the production of lab-grown meat that do not have to do with the ideological issues of killing animals. When New York magazine included petri dish meat in their "New" issue this week, along with a host of new talents, ideas, and incentives that have the potential to change the world as America enters its new presidency, it surely raised a few eyebrows. Notoriously, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced last April that it would reward a million dollars to the first organization that could launch "commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices" by 2012. That offer remains on the table, but the challenges scientists face toward achieving the goal are not scientific at all, just financial.

This is a meaty, wide-ranging topic, and many of the prospective pros and cons are still up for rigorous study. But aside from looking at it from an animal-friendly perspective only, what other benefits of in vitro meat are there, especially those that might lend its mass production to the mantra of the moment: creating new green economies?

Because the ozone layer will be less offended.

Cattle and sheep are the second largest emitters of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, next to carbon dioxide. So how did these benign creatures, which have roamed the earth and provided food for humans for centuries, account for 18 per cent of greenhouse gases, according to a 2006 United Nations report? Because industrial farming techniques favor overfeeding animals for fast growth, which causes them to burp and fart more, releasing more methane into the atmosphere. And, we're raising and eating much more meat than we ever were before. It's difficult to change national palates by steering away from hefty portions of meat for every meal, as vegetarians and other advocates have learned. In vitro meat could just be the most brilliant cheat since Tofurkey.

Because nutritional content can be manipulated.

Food purists will no doubt be uncomfortable with this scenario. As a scientist quoted in New York put it, you could essentially "have a hamburger that has the fat profile of salmon or an avocado." We've heard of putting calcium in orange juice and stirring fiber into pasta sauces. But the swapping-out possibilities here seem endless. Since the fat cells as well as muscle tissue cells of meat are lab-produced, who needs the cholesterol-rich animal fat cells, anyway? Omnivores must eat a wide variety of plants, grains, meat and fats to be healthy, but with this system, it might be possible to eat chicken nuggets with variously engineered nutritional profiles, period.

Because most of today's meat farms have consolidated to feedlots the size of small towns, so the toxic runoff is polluting nearby towns' water supplies and causing massive soil erosion from fecal matter-tainted water.

Gorge-ous.

Because runoff pollution has surprising consequences, too.

The nitrogen pollution from fertilizers commonly used by corn farms is a threat to public health, but who would have thought that producing cattle feed (which most of the crop is used for) would cause a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts? The growing patch of oxygen-depleted sea that was detected in the 1980's has already challenged fishermen -- not to mention aquatic life -- and is poised to continue its deadly spread. If you ask me, it also challenges the notion of lab-grown meat as something scary.

Because instead of just going back to the good old days of farming, we can look to the future of farming as well.

We're seeing a growing faith in the old school values of small farms, thanks in part to the work of Michael Pollan. Small farms that pay greater respect to the earth much in the way they did fifty years ago have been embraced by the food elite; however they operate on much higher premiums than the industrial meat-making juggernaut of today. If produced cheaply, consumers who don't wish to support damaging modern practices could have another alternative with in vitro meat. What cannot be replaced, however, is the old-fashioned sense of community and accountability that small farm advocates also tout, where meat is produced with pride not by nameless corporations, but people whom their customers can trust.

Because genetic diversity might be re-embraced.

Heritage breeds of cattle, poultry and pork were once prized by farmers for their unique characteristics, but since industrial farming favored only certain species, as many as 190 farm animal breeds have become extinct worldwide and many more are teetering upon extinction (much like the lost bananas). In vitro meat is not the same as regular meat; the lack of bone, fat and a real animal's diet contributes to its different taste and appearance, which is why ground meat products such as hamburgers and chicken nuggets are found easiest to simulate. One wonders if notable differences, though, could be detected from producing muscle from a variety of different animal breeds. But it also begs the question of whether an in vitro-produced Berkshire pork, for instance, can still be called Berkshire pork. Probably not, though these definitions may need re-working.

 

Follow Cathy Erway on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cathyerway