Candy mint or breath mint?
Coke or Pepsi?
Under or over for toilet paper?
We’ve always asked ourselves the big questions, that’s for sure.
But an upcoming ginormous question seems to be at the intersection of these three biggies: Live or Memorex, Pets or Meat, and animal, vegetable, mineral.
It’s whether our meat will come from actual animals which - however nasty, brutish, and short their lives may be – at one point or other in those nasty, brutish, and short lives drew breath. Or from labs, where it will have been grown from scratch in a Petri dish.
According to a recent story in The Economist, we’ll be closer to having to ask ourselves this question come fall, when Dr. Mark Post, a scientist in the Netherlands, expects to have enough lab-grown ground beef to make himself a hamburger. Yum!
What Post and his colleagues are looking to do is replace the current inefficient (and methane gas belching and farting) way of producing our beef:
Raising animals is a resource-intensive process. About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is used for it. Yet of the nutrients in the plants these animals eat, only around 15% is turned into meat. As the human population grows, and grows richer, demand for meat is increasing. Dr Post hopes to satisfy at least part of that demand by making the stuff in factories, in a way that converts about 50% of the nutrients into something people can eat.
Factory produced meat may sound gruesome, but the factory is pretty much where most of our hormonally augmented, breast-size-of-a-turkey-of-yore chickens are plucked from.
Beef factories are still a long way off. The first hamburger will have cost about a quarter of million Euros to produce – this sounds low, but what do I know - which would make them a tad prohibitive to grill up for us Happy Meal drive-through folks. But the technology will scale, thanks to stem cell science.
Other than the obvious general Foodenstein nature of this whole deal, there’s one part of this development that I find particularly creepy. That’s where once the stem cells have been turned into muscle cells:
…they are encouraged to exercise and build up their strength by being given their own gym equipment (pieces of Velcro to which they can anchor themselves in order to stretch and relax spontaneously). The fatty cells of adipose tissue, needed for juiciness, are grown separately and then combined with the muscle cells before the whole thing is cooked. In theory, one cow could thus supply as many hamburgers as a million slaughtered animals can today.
Well, even though it does raise some questions about where we’re going to get the leather for our footwear, I’m all in favor of that sort of yield from one cow. (Talk about the ultimate miracle of the loaves and fish.) But the notion of these cells actually building muscle (if not burning fat) by exercising? Maybe they should come up with another word for it before we start seeing ads for Wonder Beef. The flash images of cells working out on ellipticals or in spinning class is too weird for me, although it may not be for most consumers. I can certainly see an ad campaign of these little guys – see how easy it is to animate them? – doing cardio and weight exercises to help keep us healthy.
The article suggests that, because no animal will die so that we can eat Big Macs, vegetarians might even start eating meat. I doubt it. Once they start reading about all those muscle cells climbing the Velcro, I’m sure that the vegetarians will start thinking about them as almost human.
Me? I think I’ll wait this one out a while. Maybe 50-75 years to see whether real-fake meat is safe at any speed. By which point the whole thing will be moot.
Hmmmm. On second thought, maybe I will try one. If I’m already 90, what harm can it do me? Maybe I’ll even volunteer to be a guinea pig. Two all-lab-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun coming right up.
Want fries with that?