The BBC has reported on a pretty odd breakthrough: the successful growing of meat in a Dutch laboratory. In vitro meat isn’t that new of an achievement, despite how radical it sounds; the process was first accomplished a few years ago. But continued progress in this unusual endeavor is nonetheless exciting, for three key reasons.
The first and most obvious advantage is the ability to obtain meat without having to kill anything. It may some day be possible to harvest meat no differently than we do crops – to enjoy its nutrition and taste without abetting the horrific and widespread suffering that results. As a would-be vegetarian concerned about the treatment of animals, I find this aspect most favorable. But I know of many non-vegetarians that have qualms about where they get their meat and how. Plenty of people enjoy animal products but the unsavory consequences.
Second, lab-grown meat wouldn’t be as ecologically devastating as industrialized farming. Many people are unaware of the environmental costs of supporting livestock on such a large-scale. Cattle alone literally produce tons of methane gas and excrement, which not only pollutes the local area but erodes our atmosphere. A lot of space and energy is required to support livestock, which means more deforestation and climate-altering CO2. As demand for meat increasing, especially in the fast-growing developing world, these trends will put even more undue stress on our planet.
Which leads to the third cause for support: the current meat-market is wasteful and inefficient, not only for the environment but for people. The billions of livestock we raise require a lot of water and food that could otherwise go to almost as many people. It’s estimated that enough grain to feed 100 million people goes to feed cows whose meat will ultimately feed only 6 million – in a world rife with starvation, this is a travesty, especially considering that meat is consumed more out of luxury than necessity (nutritionally, we don’t need as much meat, if any, as we do the staple grains we lose to provide it). Fresh water is also in short supply in much of the world, so in aggregate terms we’re competing with our own source of food over dwindling water resources.
Plus, if meat can be produced on an industrial scale, it may go a long way to mitigating mass hunger, assuming the process can be made cheaper and the supply mechanisms are more efficient (we already produce a surplus of good globally, yet malnutrition and starvation persist).
Of course, it’ll probably be awhile until we see synthetic meat on the market. As the article notes, scientists are working on improving the taste so it’s more palatable – as crass as it sounds, sensory stimulation probably guides people’s food choices more than any ethical or nutritional concerns. And if the controversy of GM crops is any indication, there will be a lot of reservations about consuming something that was grown in a lab. Such concerns would be understandable, which is why I hope to see more research and debate on this issue.
Please share your own reactions and thoughts.