Ethical Meat and Idiotic Media

Lab grown meat is now possible. But is not available on an industrial scale to satisfy the human desire for burgers, steak and ribs. While this does represent a breakthrough it’s likely to be a while before the last cow or chicken or pig is slaughtered. Of course, the mainstream media picked up this important event and immediately labeled it with captivating headlines featuring the word “frankenburger”. Perhaps a well-intentioned lab will someday come up with an intelligent form of media organization.

From the New York Times (dot earth):

I first explored livestock-free approaches to keeping meat on menus in 2008 in a pieced titled “Can People Have Meat and a Planet, Too?”

It’s been increasingly clear since then that there are both environmental and — obviously — ethical advantages to using technology to sustain omnivory on a crowding planet. This presumes humans will not all soon shift to a purely vegetarian lifestyle, even though there are signs of what you might call “peak meat” (consumption, that is) in prosperous societies (Mark Bittman wrote a nice piece on this). Given dietary trends as various cultures rise out of poverty, I would say it’s a safe bet meat will remain a favored food for decades to come.

Now non-farmed meat is back in the headlines, with a patty of in-vitro beef – widely dubbed a “frankenburger” — fried and served in London earlier today.

The beef was grown in a lab by a pioneer in this arena — Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. My colleague Henry Fountain has reported the details in a fascinating news article. Here’s an excerpt followed by my thoughts on next steps in what I see as an important area of research and development:

According to the three people who ate it, the burger was dry and a bit lacking in flavor. One taster, Josh Schonwald, a Chicago-based author of a book on the future of food [link], said “the bite feels like a conventional hamburger” but that the meat tasted “like an animal-protein cake.”

But taste and texture were largely beside the point: The event, arranged by a public relations firm and broadcast live on the Web, was meant to make a case that so-called in-vitro, or cultured, meat deserves additional financing and research…..

Dr. Post, one of a handful of scientists working in the field, said there was still much research to be done and that it would probably take 10 years or more before cultured meat was commercially viable. Reducing costs is one major issue — he estimated that if production could be scaled up, cultured beef made as this one burger was made would cost more than $30 a pound.

The two-year project to make the one burger, plus extra tissue for testing, cost $325,000. On Monday it was revealed that Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, paid for the project. Dr. Post said Mr. Brin got involved because “he basically shares the same concerns about the sustainability of meat production and animal welfare.”
The enormous potential environmental benefits of shifting meat production, where feasible, from farms to factories were estimated in “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production,”a 2011 study in Environmental Science and Technology.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Professor Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. Courtesy of Reuters/David Parry / The Atlantic.