It isn’t 2022, so we’re not eating Soylent Green yet.
But if People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) get their wish, in a few short years we’ll be feeling okay about scarfing down chicken drumsticks made in labs.
The group just announced a $1 million incentive to the first team capable of satisfying their criteria and producing in vitro chicken meat that “has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.” Applicants have until June 30, 2012, to get this part right.
PETA believes taking cells from a small number of animals to make massive amounts of food ethically trumps wholesale slaughter.
“For people who are addicted to the cholesterol and saturated fats in flesh, we’re rooting for science to provide an eco-friendly ‘methadone’ for their ‘heroin,’” explains PETA spokesperson Nicole Matthews.
Hold on. Is an organization that has traditionally called on people to abandon their desire to consume flesh going soft?
And what’s with using genetic modification, the bane of the eco movement, in the name of ending factory farming?
“We’ve realized that we need to get over our own revulsion at flesh-eating and do what has the potential to save billions of animals each year,” says Matthews about the org’s new approach to carnivore sensibilities. But she does insist that PETA still calls for people to go vegan.
All this might be more than many other animal lib folk can handle, and there are reports of squabbling within PETA’s ranks.
Is petri-dish flesh even sellable as a mass-market food option? At Chicken Farmers of Canada, spokesperson Marty Brett is strikingly unworried. Little of this, he says, will resonate with consumers.
“People eat a lot of chicken, and they don’t have any problems with how we do our business. We had a billion kilograms of production in 2007, our highest ever,” he says.
Even if PETA can get diners salivating for ersatz chicken breasts, will the science actually deliver on a large enough scale to compete with farmed meat?
The prize, after all, requires that successful applicants manufacture a viable, approved product in quantities large enough to be sold at competitive prices in at least 10 American states.
Serguei Golovan, of the University of Guelph’s department of animal and poultry science, is skeptical.
“It doesn’t seem possible to grow in vitro meat by that date,” he says. Many labs, including some in Guelph, are growing muscle cells in culture, but he would hardly call that meat.
“Meat has a very specific structure and texture. You know, muscle cells would need fat cells in there to produce the taste,” Golovan explains.
As for achieving a market price, “cell culture is very expensive,” he says, estimating that in vitro meat would be “100 times more expensive than meat in the store.”
He predicts hamburgers will be much easier to produce in a lab. In fact, over the past few years, the Dutch government has invested millions in in vitro meat research in hopes of producing minced meats suitable for fast food.
“It might be easier to produce some muscle proteins in genetically engineered plants, making those plants produce specific meat proteins,” suggests Golovan. “A good lab could do it very easily.”
GMO critics, of course, are going to start their own squawking at this tolerance for tampering with natural systems. Already, experts are expressing concerns about all the scary unanticipated consequences of these kinds of experiments.
“There has been no attempt to examine the safety of genetically modified organisms,” says Leda Raptis, professor of microbiology and immunology at Queen’s U.
“There are some things you will not know [about this kind of project] until the future. There will be tons of concerns, but you have to see how they manage to do it and see what the possible pitfalls are,” she says.
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at U of T’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, acknowledges that plenty of people will see in vitro meat as wrong from the GMO perspective or say it is another form of commodification of animals. And the yuck factor will be widespread.
But Bowman says you must weigh the risks against benefits, and morally there are many benefits to in vitro meat. “One of the huge advantages is the potential to reduce animal suffering,” explains Bowman. He adds that “livestock comes with an environmental toll on many levels.”
“You can control for mad cow disease, and you can control fats as well. You could come up with nutritious meats and control retroviruses,” says Bowman.
We could avoid another SARS-like crisis, which came from bush meat, called “ye wei,” or “wild taste” in China, and we could save the dwindling wild and endangered species hunted to satisfy the jaded palates of the wealthy.
In the future, “you could be eating things that no one would have thought of eating. It could also trigger a whole culinary shift,” suggests Bowman, of the wide range of wild game labs could create.
It evokes a kind of Victorian exotic game club meal. Does this mean PETA could inadvertently launch a future python, bear, tortoise, elephant and bald eagle meat market?
Says Bowman, “It’s good to get the dialogue going before these things come to be."
Kerry Bowman on the possibility of creating a wide range of wild meats to suit the tastes of global clientèle and open up new culinary avenues:
Kerry Bowman on the general benefits: