The idea of food that’s not grown by conventional agricultural methods is actually not so far from reality as we’d all like to think. Check out these excerpts from recent stories in Wired magazine about meat grown in test-tube like conditions in vats.
Imagine that, meat that’s grown without ever being part of an animal. How unnatural is that? What possible consequences and ramifications might that have for human health? Judging by how GMOs are being handled by the regulatory community, we’re not likely to find out what effects this new form of artificial “meat” will have until it’s “tested” on unsuspecting customers. Also, going by the GMO marketing precedent, we’re perhaps unlikely to see labelling to indicate whether the meat we’re buying came from an animal or a vat.
And now, the Wired stories — first “Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow and Sell Test Tube Meat”:
“In five to 10 years, supermarkets might have some new products in the meat counter: packs of vat-grown meat that are cheaper to produce than livestock and have less impact on the environment.
According to a new economic analysis (.pdf) presented at this week’s In Vitro Meat Symposium in Ås, Norway, meat grown in giant tanks known as bioreactors would cost between $5,200-$5,500 a ton (3,300 to 3,500 euros), which the analysis claims is cost competitive with European beef prices.
With a rising global middle class projected by the UN to double meat consumption (.pdf) by 2050, and livestock already responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases, the symposium is drawing a variety of scientists, environmentalists and food industry experts.
“We’re looking to see if there are other technologies which can produce food for all the people on the planet,” said Anthony Bennett of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. “Not only today but over the next 10, 20, 30 years.”
Rapidly evolving technology and increasing concern about the environmental impact of meat production are signs that vat-grown meat is moving from scientific curiosity to consumer option. In vitro meat production is a specialized form of tissue engineering, a biomedical practice in which scientists try to grow animal tissues like bone, skin, kidneys and hearts. Proponents say it will ultimately be a more efficient way to make animal meat, which would reduce the carbon footprint of meat products.
“To produce the meat we eat now, 75 to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue,” Jason Matheny, a researcher at Johns Hopkins and co-founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit that promotes research on in vitro meat, told Wired.com. “With cultured meat, there’s no body to support; you’re only building the meat that eventually gets eaten.”….”
And here’s an excerpt from another Wired story on a similar subject “Beef Battle: Tissue Engineered Burgers vs. Humanely Raised”
“The FDA’s decision to approve cloned meat for sale is, while interesting from philosophical or regulatory angles, not much of a food story. You’re not going to be eating cloned cow meat anytime soon. Still, the announcement was enough to drive some people, i.e. my girlfriend, to seriously consider a turn to veganism. The peek that the cloning discussion provides into industrial meat production is a bit sickening (See Michael Pollanas linked by Brandon) and begs the question: do you care how your food was produced or do other concerns — health, taste, or cost, say — predominate?
There are signs that the backstory, as smart people call it, of your food is gaining increasing economic value. Whole Foods, the retail standard bearer for the organic industry, has doubled revenue in the last five years from $2.8 billion to $5.6 billion. Its stores aggregate niche consumers looking for pesticide-free, hormone-free, free-range, non-GMO, farmer-friendly, and fair trade products. All these issues relate to the way that our food is produced and introduced into the market, not just its cost, taste, or traditional nutritional value.
Most current food movements look back to earlier, generally more “natural” times: heirloom tomatoes, pre-chemical farming methods, free-range animals, etc. But what about technophiles who care about their food production? They might be able to pin their hopes on using tissue engineering to create test tube meat, which doesn’t come wrapped in an animal with a brain.
New Harvest is a research funding entity trying to catalyze the development of meat-substitutes. They are drawing on the leading lights in the in-vitro meat field.
One novel line of research is to
produce meat in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an
animal. The production of such “cultured meat” begins
by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating
them in a nutrient—rich medium…The resulting cells can then be harvested,
seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat,
such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.
Steaks, chops, and a variety of other meat cuts won’t be available any time soon, but the work of the many scientists working on engineering tissue — like the researchers who grew a beating mouse heart — will eventually bring those cuts within the range of the technology….”