It's not quite Star Trek's replicator, but it's getting close: In this week's issue of The New Yorker, writer Michael Specter takes a look at the research and development of “in vitro meat,” fake meat cultured and grown in labs that scientists hope will look, feel, and taste like the real thing. Which then leads us to our post-apocalpytic existentialist dilemma: “Can something be called chicken or pork if it was born in a flask and produced in a vat?”
Growing meat outside a living body might seem strange at first, but Specter helpfully reminds us that we've been exploring the regeneration of human body parts, particularly organs, for quite some time now. Why not steak cooked up in a petri dish?
As Specter explains, the process of creating meat actually is not so different than raising livestock: Scientists pull cells from mice or pig stem cells, and feed them a healthy diet of amino acids, sugars, and minerals. The cells grow into muscle tissues, are stimulated with electrical currents — like real muscles, these muscle cells require exercise to prevent atrophy — and eventually fuse together. The newly fused cells then can be formed into different meats, and processed accordingly. Fats, salt, and other flavorings are added later.
At least, this is how it will work in theory. The largest slab of vitro meat created to date is only about the size of a contact lens, and the decidedly smaller sample Specter tasted in a Dutch lab “was as visually stunning as mouse droppings and, if such a substance can be said to look like anything, it looked like a runny egg.” Yum.
The scientific community's appetite for in vitro meat (pun intended, sorry) has been slowly building over the last decade or so, with the unexpected support of a somewhat unlikely consortium of interest groups. Environmental scientists hope that in vitro meats will lessen, if not wholly eliminate, the damaging impact of industrial farming. Animal welfare groups, predictably, see these developments as a way to preventing the mass slaughter of animals for food.
Others, like Dan Barber, are wary that in vitro meat will supplant, rather than supplement, sustainable farming systems, pointing out, “If your goal is to improve animal welfare, ecological integrity, and human health, then replacing animals with laboratory products is the wrong way to go.” And, whatever benefits in vitro meat may bring us, the most crucial test will be whether consumers will take to the concept of buying lab-grade chicken and beef.
Nonetheless, PETA is so enthused with the idea of in vitro meats that the organization promises a $1 million prize to the first scientist who, by June 30, 2012, develops a commercially viable in vitro chicken-meat product that tastes and looks like the real thing. One million dollars to the person who can finally rid this world of disgusting soy kung pao chicken and country fried seitan steak? Yeah, we can get behind that.