In five years, you'll be eating a hamburger that no animal died for. Instead, that burger will have been grown from a tiny sample of cells in a plant-and-mushroom bath. The cow who donated the cells will be frolicking in a meadow somewhere, having long forgotten the annoying poke from a tissue engineer with a syringe. At a meeting in Norway of the In Vitro Meat Consortium late last week, scientists and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the future of "cultured meat," or meat that's essentially grown like cultures in a lab (pictured here). This meeting, the first of its kind, signaled the beginning of a viable industry around the production of vat-grown meat.
Attendees listened to talks with names like "What product features will influence an animal advocate's decision to move from vegetarianism to In Vitro Meat?" and went to panels devoted to "large-scale tissue engineering." While it's still more expensive to produce cultured meat than it is to raise chickens for the slaughter, the economics are changing as swiftly as the technologies to produce cultured meat. Mostly the barriers to market entry in a few years will be the meat industry itself, which may attempt to scare consumers away from the stuff or pull strings in government block the synthetic flesh via regulations.
For the record, cultured meat tastes just like regular meat — it's tissue-engineered muscle, made of exactly the same biological ingredients as meat from dead animals. It can also be a lot less fatty. Texture is one of the remaining issues, which is why proponents of cultured meat suggest it will first come to market as chicken nuggets and ground meat.
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times Dot Earth blog imagines vat meat as an eco-alternative:
But one could envision someday a model, say, of a solar-powered facility in southern California or Singapore basically turning sunlight and desalinated seawater into growth medium and then tons of cruelty-free, sustainable nuggets of chicken essence.
He goes on to ask Peter Singer, vegetarian ethicist and author of Animal Liberation, whether cultured meat is an ethical alternative to dead animal meat. For the record, Singer is pro-vat meat. He tells Revkin:
Whatever works best. If it is harder to move people [to stop slaughtering animals] on ethical grounds than it is to provide a sustainable humane substitute, I'm all for the substitute.
Hamburgers and sausage without the killing? Not sure I see a downside.
Can People Have Meat and a Planet Too? [Dot Earth]