Will your hamburgers soon be grown in a vat? In vitro meat could solve a lot of the world's food problems, while helping the environment and reducing cruelty to animals. Blogher's Heather Clisby explains how.
At first sniff, in vitro meat (IVM) might inspire the skeevies, but IVM may provide multiple solutions to the problems of hunger as well as environmental problems. As Winston Churchill surmised in 1931: "Fifty 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." According to Churchill, we're quite tardy.
"Livestock's Long Shadow, an influential 2006 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, calculated that the global livestock industry is responsible for about 18 per cent of mankind's greenhouse-gas emissions - more than all of our cars, trains, shipping and planes combined. The FAO said it also accounts for more than eight percent of our freshwater use, largely to grow crops fed to animals. Meat production now uses up 70 per cent of the world's agricultural land. And then, of course, there is the animal suffering attributed to the industry and intensive animal-farming."
—"Fake Meat: Burger Grown In Beakers", WIRED, 7/31/09, by Leo Hickman
Though the concept is hardly new, my first impression of IVM appeared in the second episode of the superb but short-lived show, Better Off Ted — "Heroes," in the form of "meat blobby" where I assumed it to be pure hilarious fiction. I then came across IVM in an unlikely spot, on the Farm Sanctuary site. (As covered previously in this space, Farm Sanctuary is a haven for abused and neglected farm animals.) While IVM is by no means their central cause, they do state a clear position. An excerpt:
As we advocate for an end to factory farming and institutionalized cruelty to farm animals, the developing research into the mass production of in vitro meat presents an opportunity to seriously impact the number of animals slaughtered for food in years to come.
So, I gave Dr. Allan E. Kornberg, Executive Director of the Farm Sanctuary, a call to discuss. Now, this is a vegan who literally comes to work every day asking himself, "How can I make the lives of farm animals better?" From his perspective, the advantages of IVM are crystal clear — nobody would suffer or die for your burger or McNugget. Said Dr. Kornberg:
There are nearly 10 billion land animals slaughtered for food every year in the US. It's hard to get your mind around it. If there's a way to stop it, I'm all for it.….Everybody on senior staff agreed because what we advocate for is the best interest of the animals. We decided to make a statement to support this technology but we are not necessarily the first animal rights group to support IVM.
Indeed, in 2008 (the US red meat market generated $61 billion that year) PETA famously announced a $1 million dollar prize to the "first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by June 30, 2012." Of course, the technology is so far from market-ready that the comparatively paltry dollar amount is a symbolic gesture. Still, it's a clear message of support: IVM will not get ugly flack from the notoriously combative organization if/when IVM commercially debuts.
I asked Dr. Kornberg what he says to people who call IVM unnatural, and he responded:
Much of what we do in an advanced society is unnatural — a building is heated and air conditioned, going 60 mph, hundreds of chickens in a space — is that natural?
We're so disconnected from nature now. Not many people in North America are hunters/gatherers anymore. In a vacuum, IVM seems disconnected, but I'm not really sure how eating a pig that was raised in a stall, locked in with bars, how is that very connected to nature either. And that is connected to cruelty, so that's the difference.
When I think about the public health problem of eating animal products, the actual impact of what animals nutrients do to our bodies — health disease, cholesterol — not to mention the unintended risks of infectious disease — swine flu, mad cow — (with IVM) all of those diseases would go away. The reason why mad cow happened is because humans — aside from the other tortures — would take from slaughtered cow, brain and spinal cord, grind it up and feed it to other cattle. If that's not Frankensteinish, I don't know what is.
I also spoke to Eric Hoffman, Bio-technology Policy Campaigner for Friends of Earth (FOE), an environmental organization, about IVM. Although he did acknowledge that "meat production is a serious contributor to environmental pollution," he was less than enthusiastic about IVM. Said Hoffman:
Animal agriculture is very environmentally damaging at almost any place along the process and we think we need to move away from factory farms. To us, the solution isn't technology. We already know how to raise meat sustainably, we've been doing it for 10,000 years…We really see the technology as unnecessary.
In general with a lot of new technologies in our food system - genetic engineering, cloning - we need to have appropriate regulations in place….I think a lot of the times we have a very reactionary approach to new technologies. We release new products and hope nothing goes wrong. Then need to come up with new safety test to address the problems that develop.
Populations are going to have to reduce the amount of meat it consumes and the meat that you do eat should be raised sustainably. Most consumers don't have a choice, they see this meat has been raised from corn and soy subsidies that help make meat products economical. We're not seeing the true cost of the meat on the market; the hidden costs — to clean up the water, health issues and so on.
We always are in to this issue of how we're going to feed the world. Technology has been proposed as a solution and it's failed almost every single time — it's not actually feeding the world. And now they are coming up with a potentially dangerous technology.
Hoffman also voiced concerns about monopoly in mass IVM production, fears that are not unfounded considering that just three people in the world currently hold a patent for IVM: D. Nyman (?), Kedar Challakere (a Bay Area physician/cancer biologist), and Willem van Eelen, a Dutch amateur scientist and the self-proclaimed, 'godfather of in vitro meat.'
"Eat less meat."
—US Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu, during a speech at UC Berkeley when he was the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, responding to an audience question about the number one thing a person could do for the environment.
Finally, I spoke to Jason Matheny, a member of the In Vitro Consortium and co-founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization "working to develop new meat substitutes, including cultured meat."
Matheny became a vegan in high school out of animal welfare concerns, but it was a trip to India that opened his eyes to the prevalence of factory farming, and the need for an alternative meat solution. Said Matheny:
Meat consumption in India is doubling every decade — same for China. First thing that developing countries do when they can afford it is increase meat consumption. Seeing that increase in meat consumption made me realize we need an alternative to meat that would be acceptable to most of the world's emerging meat-eaters, something cleaner, more sustainable.
Matheny adds that meat substitutes are part of the solution, but not all of it:
In the 20+ years I've been vegan, the quality of meat substitute products has improved significantly but we don't want a single strategy, we need to diversify. In the same way we develop multiple technologies to replace fossil fuels - solar, wind, etc. - we need to do that with meat. Cultured meat seems like the most promising.
Matheny says that any concerns about IVM are quite pre-emptive: "I still think it's 10 years away from a commercial market and five years away from a technology that scalable. This isn't something that's going to appear in grocery stores next week, it's a long-term research challenge."
Despite the technological challenges, Matheny sees IVM as the ultimate efficiency solution for a number of concerns:
Animals are not efficient protein factories - there are parts of their bodies that aren't edible, it takes a long time to grow them, and so on. With IVM, you'd only be growing parts that are edible. We supported an Oxford study that revealed IVM would reduce land requirement by about 90 percent. All of that land could restored back to habitat for wildlife or you could diversity and rotate different kinds of crops.
The Oxford study (still under peer review) also factored in another crucial resource. "Water usage would also reduced by 90 percent. That's a big one. Other parts of the world are shifting to active irrigation and using larger amounts of fresh water. Most of our water supply is going to farm animals, not people."
As for ethical concerns, Matheny explained it thus: "In my own opinion, unless something has a nervous system and feels pain, I don't see what the moral concern would be concerning welfare of rights. These cells that are taken from animals in order to produce tissue is the same process that happens when we exercise — when the human body produces microfibers."
As for those who call IVM unnatural, Matheny responds that "there's nothing natural about putting 10,0000 chickens in a shed and filling them full of drugs while living in their own waste, but that's how 95 percent of the chickens and turkeys are grown in the US so we already, as consumers, accept something that's unnatural- also highly polluting, highly unhealthy. Google ‘meat slurry' if you have the stomach for it - how Chicken Nuggets are made. You can't imagine a more unnatural process."