Where is your moral footing if your meat never had feet?


Unraveling animal products from their living, breathing progenitors removes murder from meat and cuts the cruelty out of creameries. Winston Churchill’s 1932 prediction that raising whole animals for a paltry few cuts of meat would become ludicrously obsolete is now a reality. A handful of scientists are determined to make sci-fi commonplace; they are growing meat in petri dishes. Their project is no tired permutation of to’furkey. This is real meat, a duplication of the individual muscle fibers that make-up your favorite savory, sizzling steak, and it needs 90% less land and water than the meat to which we have grown accustomed[1]. Perhaps surprisingly, the most formidable hurdle between cultured meat and the market is stale reasoning – not science. The prototypical meatball has been marinated, but our sensibilities as consumers need recalibration.

It is worth discussing exactly what goes into cultured meat because it is so radically different from any traditional farming method. Muscle cells are harvested from a healthy adult cow; the cow is left no less healthy or alive after donating tissue. Some of these cells are adult stem cells, which retain the trademark ability to become any cell in the body. Adult stem cells are moderately specified to express a certain class of cell – skin, blood, or perhaps brain[2]. A cut of meat is a cut of muscle, and muscle growth is a job easily tackled by muscle-specific stem cells: satellite cells[3]. The collection of cells is content to continue proliferating if it is well nourished and exercised. These clusters of satellite cells need resistance training to grow effectively. This makes sense when you realize that your muscles wouldn’t grow unless they were asked to, either. This resistance comes from the shape of the meat growth plate. Right now, the most highly nourishing fuel for cells is fetal bovine serum – a protein rich growth promoter collected from unborn cow embryos. The ongoing collection of fetal bovine serum is the only morally objectionable detail of engineered meat, and every team working on cultured meat is actively seeking out ways to swap serum for a plant-based protein substitute.

Meat manufactured inside of a lab neatly circumvents the three key issues that turn mouths away from animals. Without an animal, there is no cruelty. Bessie can spend her days in the pasture, and her family can shrink to a reasonable size as behemoth breeding operations cease. The guilt of subjecting an animal to confinement and slaughter does not come into question when thinking about cells in a petri dish. Even the cow who donates the muscle cells remains alive and well. The original culture of cells is analogous to a yeast starter, it can be developed once and continually harvested. This paradigm shift negates the moral dilemma of meat quite gracefully. If nothing must die for you to have your hamburger, perhaps there is nothing objectionable about eating that hamburger.

Antibiotics and growth hormones, high fat, excess iron, or a combination of all three are oft-cited reasons for avoiding meat. In a controlled laboratory environment, there is no need for antibiotics. The same specificity applies to the fat content of the meat; a patty made purely of muscle cells has no fat. This is a matter of taste that scientists are tweaking. Fat is pleasing to the palate and part of why people enjoy meat so much. But pioneers see no reason why the fat content could not be continuously variable to preference or be exchanged for highly praised omega-3s[4]. The health conscious raise their eyebrows at heme-iron, the kind of iron found in animals[5]. The “heme” part of the heme-iron cannot be removed from traditional meat – it is an integral protein in the blood. Without blood, there is no problematic heme-iron and it can instead be incorporated at safe levels or from alternative sources.

The environmental infeasibility of meat consumption is driving one-time meat lovers away from their staple foods in droves. Cattle generate 40% of the methane and 65% of the nitrous oxide that is spewed into the environment, eat up a third of the crops cultivated on earth[6] at a shocking level of inefficiency, and suck up 441 gallons of water per pound of beef produced[7]. This, combined with the Food and Agriculture Organization’s prediction that meat consumption will double by 2050[8], is hopelessly untenable. The format of cultured meat slices these numbers into impossible fractions of their former selves. Greenhouse gas emissions fall by 96%, 99% less land is used, 96% less water is consumed[9].

Breakthroughs like cultured meat exemplify the reconstruction that our heuristics are due for. Truly groundbreaking new technologies are victims of a mismatch between our traditional sensibilities and the speed of innovation, this one even has The USDA and The FDA befuddled. An instinctive “yuck” factor seems reasonable at first pass, but under scrutiny it is a baseless aversion. It is worth taking a dispassionate look at your feelings on lab-grown meat, our future food security and environmental stability depend on it.

[1] Memphis Meats. http://www.memphismeats.com/about-us/

[2] Williams, Jack. Meat Derived From Stem Cells. Medlink 2011.

[3] Sambasivan, R. Adult Skeletal Muscle Stem Cells. Results and Problems in Cell Differentiation: Vertebrate Myogenesis. 2015; 56:191-213

[4] Zaraska, Mark. Is Lab-Grown Meat Good for Us? 8-19-2013. The Atlantic.

[5] White, Desley. Red Meat, Dietary Heme Iron, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Advances in Nutrition July 2013 v. 4 403-411

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Livestock’s Long Shadow. 2006.

[7] Beckett, J. L., and J. W. Oltjen. 1993. Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States. J. Anim. Sci. 71: 818-826.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Livestock’s Long Shadow. 2006.

[9] Tuomisto, Hanna L. Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45, p. 6117-6123.

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