The holiday season is upon us, and if you're anything like the average Canadian, you'll be spending the next week reuniting with family, sharing gifts and warm memories of the past year -- perhaps over the roasted, braised, broiled, or baked carcass of a dead animal.
For those conscientious carnivores who regard their holiday spread as a moral minefield -- who annually anguish over the creatures killed and the carbon consumed for the sake of their seasonal feasting -- thanks to modern science, you may soon have your meat and your conscience too. Indeed, if some experts are to be believed, the Christmas turkey of the not-so-distant future will be cruelty-free, eco-friendly, and entirely man-made.
Ripped from the least appetizing pages of science fiction, a small group of scientists around the world are hard at work growing meat outside the body of a living organism. Imagine chicken breast, only without the unpleasant business of actually killing a chicken for the pleasure. This is meat grown entirely in vitro.
In vitro meat starts its journey to your plate as a white blotch on the surface of a petri-dish. This blotch is composed of stem-cells collected from the animal, whose meat is eventually cooked and consumed. Thus ends the significant but bit role the animal plays in the process of growing its meat, presumably much to the relief of the biopsied, but otherwise unperturbed, donor.
"Fed" by a nutrient-rich bath of minerals, vitamins, sugars, and amino acids, the stem-cell culture grows into a slightly larger blotch before being placed onto an organic support scaffold and popped into a steel cylindrical biochemical reactor. Once secured within the reaction, which mimics the environment inside the body of an animal, the culture is left to develop into muscle tissue, stretch out its fibrous tendrils and grow like the living tissue that it bizarrely is.
Lacking a circulatory system to carry oxygen to deeper layers of tissue, the muscle can only grow along its scaffold in microscopically thin sheets of protein. If you were picturing a steak sitting in a bioreactor, think carpaccio instead. Once the muscle has grown sufficiently, this sheet meat (or irresistibly, "shmeat") is removed from its support, ground up, and salted to taste. Bon appétit.
Shmeat is only one of the terms that has been used to describe this animal-free meat with varying degrees of scientific precision. Others nicknames include "in vitro meat," "cultured meat," "test-tube meat," "petri pork," "vat-grown veal," and "Franken-burger." Surely whatever technical hurdles still stand in the way of the mass production of shmeat, none will pose a larger challenge than devising a marketable brand name for meat grown in a vat of nutrient bath.
For the sake of accuracy if not commercial appeal, Nicholas Genovese, a University of Missouri bioengineer and one of North America's leading cultured meat researchers, says he prefers the term "hydroponic meat."
"Like hydroponic vegetables that are cultivated in a nutrient medium without soil, cultured meat is cultivated in a nutrient medium without animal development," he explains.
Meat that isn't murder
Ignoring any obvious dissimilarities between soil-less lettuce gardening and harvesting animal flesh from petri-dishes, the analogy is useful: in both forms of hydroponic cultivation, the cultivators are no longer bound by the physical, climactic, and in the case of meat production, moral constraints, of traditional cultivation methods.
Chief among those constraints is the conventional connection between eating an animal and killing it beforehand. Genovese is a vegetarian and gets most of his funding from PETA (yes, that PETA). As he sees it, the first and most obvious promise of in vitro meat technology is that with a single innovation, the annual slaughter of roughly 60 billion animals worldwide will suddenly become that much more difficult to justify.
There are other potential benefits. Genevose says the ability to fine-tune the production process may actually make cultured meat superior to the traditional alternative. Since the fat content of lab-grown meat would have to be cultured and added separately, shmeat producers could conceivably leave out saturated fat (the "bad" fat), infuse the product with essential fatty acids (the "good" fat), or otherwise tailor the product to the health preferences of a consumer.
For those unconvinced by considerations of ethics and public health, the advent of shmeat is also liable to liven up the menu at your local restaurant. Because cultured meat demands nothing more from the source-animal than a minimally invasive biopsy, there would be nothing to stop the cultivation of what Genovese elusively referred to in one interview as the "artisan meats of novel species." If that seems like an unnecessarily oblique way of phrasing things, that may be because a PETA-sponsored bioengineer is not likely to list among the benefits of cultured meat production the chance to finally eat panda burgers.
Shmeat is hardly a new idea. As far back as 1932, Winston Churchill predicted that "50 years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." Give or take a few decades, humankind took a major step towards escaping that absurdity when, in 2001, researchers at Touro College in New York made a macabre but meaningful discovery: when flesh sliced from the belly of a living goldfish was placed in a nutrient-rich solution derived from (why not?) fetal cow blood, the newly liberated fish muscle continued to grow, separate from its erstwhile host.
Since that observation, interest and innovation in cultured meat production has taken off. In 2004, the government of the Netherlands committed over $2 million euros towards in vitro meat research. Around the same time, PETA, espying the potential of "cruelty-free meat," started funding Genovese to study with American cell biologist, Vladimir Mironov of the Medical University of South Carolina. In 2008, the animal rights organization began offering a $1 million prize to the first team of scientists who can produce a piece of in vitro chicken indistinguishable from the real thing.
"When we first announced the contest, our primary intent was to get in vitro meat into the mainstream consciousness and to light a fire under cash-strapped scientists," says Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of PETA. "But recent progress has been such that now I'm beginning to think we may have to actually fork the money over."
If PETA does end up mailing a cheque out anytime soon, it will likely be sent to an address in Eindhoven, the Dutch university town that Michael Specter dubbed in a New Yorker article published last spring, "the in vitro meat world's version of Silicon Valley."
It was in his Einhoven lab in 2009 that researcher Mark Post was able to produce an in vitro meat sample of pig meat, albeit a "soggy form of pork." Having since improved his technique (Post's team now use small pieces of Velcro to "exercise" their muscle samples into a more lithesome firmness), Post now promises to have a cultured meat cow-based prototype (that is, a hamburger) towards the end of 2012.
But according to Genovese, burgers are only the first of many complicated steps in hydroponic meat production. The engineering feat of producing hamburger meat, essentially ground-up muscle fiber, is nowhere near as complex a task as crafting a whole cut of muscle in all its textured complexity -- be it chicken for PETA's context, or anything else.
Payout or not, PETA's contribution to the cause of shmeat is undeniable. But in her full-fledged support of in vitro meat, Newkirk has not won the unanimous support of the PETA rank-and-file.
"There's been a row within the vegetarian and vegan community," she says, without the slightest hint of regret in her voice. "Those who are vegetarian or vegan for religious reasons or for reasons of personal purity will certainly not wish to sully their hands, but here we are faced with a horror that we must combat. We're pragmatists and we think this will stop untold suffering."
Newkirk says that while PETA will continue to preach the benefits of an animal-free diet, she also recognizes that moral admonition will only do so much to curb the skyrocketing consumption of meat worldwide. Unlikely and unappealing though it may seem, she says, the "science fiction plot" of in vitro meat is, like methadone for a junkie, the best chance of getting the world to drop its meat habit.
"In the same way, this is certainly something that environmentalists should be embracing," she says.
And many already have.
Meat's big carbon hoofprint
At a Ted speaking event in Einhoven last May, Post gave a short presentation discussing the advantages of a meat production system divorced from livestock. In the same way that Winston Churchill viewed conventional meat agriculture as an "absurdity," a glaring industrial efficiency epitomizing the scientific primitivism of his era, Post points out the ecological cost of that inefficiency.
Viewed in purely mechanical terms, he explains, an animal's capacity to convert plant matter into animal muscle and fat is remarkably inefficient. Vast amounts of land and water are required to produce a given pound of meat. This is land and water that could be used to produce vegetable matter much more efficiently, with all that implies for global food allocation and commodity prices.
Meanwhile, the ecological impact of making meat, says Post, is devastating.
According to a 2006 U.N. report, 30 per cent of the world's ice-free land is dedicated to meat-destined livestock or to the grain and plant-life that sustains them. By another measure, these animals suck up, require for their food, or contaminate with their prodigious amount of waste eight per cent of all the freshwater that humanity consumes in a given year. The meat industry is an aggressive deforester and an unending fount of smelly, greenhouse gases. Belching, flatulent cows produce 39 per cent of human methane emissions.
"A meat-eater with a bicycle is actually much more environmentally unfriendly than a vegetarian with a Hummer," quips Post.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that shmeat would do better. While land and water would still be needed to grow the nutrient "feed" of cultured meat, the feedstock could conceivably be based on something as resource-sparing as blue-green algae. Industrial-sized bioreactors would require energy certainly, but that energy need not be carbon-intensive. Waste pollution, clear cutting, and methane emissions would all be minimal to non-existent.
In June of this year, Oxford environmental economist Hanna Tuomisto decided to put this question to the test. Teaming up with University of Amsterdam microbiologist M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos, the two measured the greenhouse gas emissions and the energy, land, and water use of European beef, sheep, poultry, and pork husbandry. Then they estimated the same of in vitro meat production, extrapolating up to commercial scale based on the technique currently practiced in Einhoven.
Admittedly, given the gaps that still exist in cultured meat technology, it was an imperfect exercise.
"There is a lot of uncertainty because we don't know exactly what the ultimate process will be," Toumisto says. "But at this point we do know what kind of conditions would be required to produce cultured meat, so it's possible to model the system."
Not surprisingly, Toumisto and Mattos estimated that cultured meat production would required only a small fraction of the water and land used by traditional meat agriculture, while emitting 78 to 96 per cent of the greenhouse gases to produce the same amount of meat. The only category in which cultured meat did not emerge as the undisputed greener option was in energy-use, where traditional poultry farming proved to be moderately more energy efficient.
The hubris of cultured meat
Even if Toumisto's results are taken at face value, identifying shmeat as the next innovation in green technology might be a hard sell to those most concerned about the ecological impact of their meals.
In many ways, it's the presumption of technological preeminence -- mankind's penchant for harnessing, circumventing, or dominating natural processes when we find them inconvenient -- that makes the feedlot so barbaric and the factory farm so noxious. When livestock are tightly crammed into cages, shot full of hormones, and preemptively fed antibiotics on a daily, it is because the natural way of raising soon-to-be meat was considered inefficient. One could argue that, like the proposal to spray reflective aerosols into the atmosphere to mitigate global warming, in vitro meat doubles-down on the way of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. If meat-eaters want eco-friendly, the logic goes, they should support agriculture that is less industrialized, more in tune with nature, and more organic.
Shmeat, by contract, might just be the least organic method of producing meat imaginable.
"How ethical can it be to divorce ourselves entirely from the environment on which we depend?" asked Rebecca Kneen, co-secretary of the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC) in an email exchange with The Tyee. "How 'green' can it be to ignore our environment in favor of high-tech (therefore, very energy consumptive) 'solutions'?"
Toumisto says she's heard these arguments before. Whenever she meets someone outside of the field and explains to them the subject of her research, she gets the same reaction.
"There is the comment that cultured meat is 'unnatural,'" she says. "But the current way of producing conventional meat is not natural either. If we look at animal conditions at large-scale production facilities, this is not natural."
And to the extent that animal muscle that is grown outside of animal is still 100 per cent animal muscle, there's nothing necessarily inorganic about shmeat. In theory, there is nothing about in vitro meat production that requires the use of antibiotics, hormones, or genetic modification.
It's the production process, not the ingredients, which are artificial. What nature does inside an animal, scientists hope to mimic and streamline inside a bioreactor. That may be unnatural, says Toumisto, but it shouldn't seem so unusual.
"People don't realize that so many of the food products we eat, like cheese or yogurt, are produced in very similar conditions to cultured meat," she says.
2012: The year of shmeat
The absolute outlandishness of cultured meat technology may prompt moral, practical, or simply visceral objection among many, says PETA's Newkirk, but that sense of outlandishness is bound to fade once shmeat hits the grocery store shelves.
And shmeat will hit those shelves, she says. It's only a matter of time.
"When you first introduce a new innovation, there's a knee-jerk reaction," she says. "People are very conservative in their tastes -- especially when it comes to food."
But once all the kinks in the technology are worked out -- once an organic and affordable muscle scaffold is developed and an industrial scale bio-reactor is constructed and a viable nutrient source is produced and once the whole process is optimized and the costs of producing a sandwich are brought down out of the six-figure range -- Newkirk predicts that people will get over their inhibitions. Once people start to find themselves standing in the chill of the supermarket meat aisle, asked to choose between a strip steak that has done substantial harm and a strip steak that hasn't, the transition, she says, will be "inevitable."
It may be some time before all of those kinks are worked out, but progress (if you wish to call it that) is on the march. In just a few months, it will be marching to Vancouver.
The American Association for the Advanced of Science (AAAS) will be holding their annual convention in the rainy city in mid-February. With dozens of seminars being held over the five-day convention on issues as diverse as cancer research, particle physics, and education reform, Nicholese Genovese and Vladimir Mironov will be organizing "The Next Agriculture Revolution: Emerging Production Methods for Meat Alternatives." A veritable shmeat symposium, Mark Post will be one of the key lecturers. A few months later, June 30 will mark the deadline of PETA's non-chicken-based chicken competition. A few months after that, Post is due to unveil his $300,000 hamburger.
For better or worse, these are exciting times in the world of shmeat.