Earlier this year, a paper in the journal Tissue Engineering caused a media stir. It was the first peer-reviewed paper to discuss the industrial production of ‘cultured meat’ — meat grown in a lab or factory.
The paper proved two things:
1) The fastest way to a journalist’s heart (and thus into the headlines) is through his stomach.
2) Some academic journals have really strange names. This one sounds like it could also be called Kleenex® Construction.
The process for culturing meat would work like this: First, take some cells from a farm animal and put them in a nutrient-rich medium to multiply. After that, have them calculate pi, so that there’s something for dessert.
Okay, seriously, when there are enough cells, they would be attached to a scaffold and soaked in nutrients again. The resulting tissue would be mechanically stretched (exercised) to increase its size and protein content, and then harvested. After being seasoned and cooked, it would be consumed as boneless processed meat, like in sausages or chicken nuggets.
I know what you’re thinking: Ick! The whole idea of growing meat in vats just seems strange; you’re not sure if you could eat artificially produced meat. You’d much rather stick to real food, like Cheese Whiz, Twinkies and Pringles.
The thing is though, growing meat this way definitely has some advantages. You could engineer the meat to be leaner, or to contain healthier fats overall. You wouldn’t have the same requirements for drugs and growth hormones. A more controlled environment means less risk for things like mad cow disease. And most importantly, we wouldn’t have to clunk Bessie over the head to get a decent hamburger.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m very fond of steak, especially when it’s medium-rare and accompanied by a merlot. But it is sometimes hard to reconcile the fact that something cute had to croak so that I can eat, especially since I didn’t grow up on a farm.
Indeed, one of the crueler anachronisms of our time is the fact that, although most of us are urbanites, the first images we present to our children are cartoon barnyard animals. My husband is attempting to immunize our child against the day she makes the connection to what’s on her plate by teaching her the phrase, “There’s good eating on one of those.”
At some point though, it would be nice not to have to kill whole, sentient beings in order to eat; so we’re just going to have to get past those gooey-things-in-Petri-dishes scenes Hollywood has planted in our heads.
We’re also going to have to relax a bit more about genetically modified foods. We’ve been genetically altering things for centuries — for proof, take a look at a St. Bernard and a Chihuahua. And those cattle that we munch on today are not the same animals we started with when we all lived along the Nile in Egypt. (Which is just as well, because while I like my beef well-aged, that would be a bit much.) In the past, we did our engineering through cross-breeding and lots of trial and error. Modern methods just mean we’re learning how to be more precise.
If the ick factor is still getting to you, consider this: It’s probably not the science that bothers you. You are probably more worried about the human factors; those in charge getting it wrong, or not always having your best interests at heart. Well, you can relax a bit about that too — technology is moving quickly enough that very shortly after we perfect the methods for culturing meat, you’ll be able to do it yourself at home.
I only hope it’s not printer-based technology. If it is, I may find myself starving by the light of a PC LOAD LETTER error message.