"Cultured meat"-edible animal flesh that's grown through "tissue engineering techniques"-may not be the most appetizing prospect on the culinary horizon. But it has entered the heady lexicon of sustainability for good reason.
As a recent Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study revealed, lab-grown meat could slake our inveterate craving for burgers while consuming 82 to 96 percent less water, producing 78 to 96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and occupying 99 percent less land. "We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way," Mark Post, the Maastricht University physiologist who spent years developing lab meat with the financial support of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, told Bloomberg.
Equally relevant for many consumers is the fact that lab meat appears to be more humane than current methods of production. While it's true that production now requires stem cells to be extracted from living cattle and marinated in the blood of cow fetuses, Post is hopeful that fetal bovine serum (as the extraction is called) might someday be replaced with blue algae, thus obviating this phase of exploitation. Whatever method is eventually used, if lab meat catches on there's much evidence to suggest that we might substantially reduce the assembly line of cattle pouring into the abattoir.
Lab meat, even by today's industrialized standards, is a relatively outlandish proposition. But that hasn't kept media assessments from being surprisingly upbeat about its potential. In 2011, a normally skeptical Michael Specter warmed to the idea, writing in the New Yorker that, in terms of technology, a lab burger could viably approximate the taste and texture of a real burger and, in turn, offer a viable substitute for it. Costs were prohibitive, he noted, but then what successful technology wasn't unduly expensive at the outset?
In USA Today, Farm Sanctuary's advocacy director, Bruce Friedrich, pounced on the Oxford study to deem lab meat clean, green, and lean-not to mention a product that had him eager to "fire up the grill" and end the meat industry "as we know it."Others have been less sanguine. David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canada, tells me that lab meat "is extraordinarily unlikely to work." Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, "will have their hearts punctured ... to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them." The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, "is patently absurd" as "no one has accomplished anything close." He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, "there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin." Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures "would be a huge additional problem." And as far as allergies go, who knows Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be "a waste of time." Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be "real" when it's adulterated with food-like substances designed to "improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel."
In this respect, there's nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It's a heavily processed, fabricated food that's essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: "What's the point?" After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat "really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?" Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).
As Engber suggests, the discussion of cultured cells has overlooked, well, culture. Eating meat for many consumers is about more than just eating meat. Lab meat is about more than technological feasibility. As much as I would love to see cultured meat replace its conventional counterpart, I'm fairly certain that the culinary tastemakers, not to mention the vast majority of consumers, will never go for it. It's heavily processed (not pure, not authentic, not "all natural"); it's divorced from tradition (can you imagine grandma's chicken fried steak made with a cut of lab meat?); and, in the simplest terms, it's not meat (at least as we know meat).
Culinary change happens all the time, and there's no doubt radical changes are required if we ever hope to achieve a just food system. But, at this stage, I think we're better off encouraging consumers not to eat the stuff at all rather than asking them to fake it with a redundant substitute.
This piece originally ran in Pacific Standard in 2013.