With breathless pronouncements and over-the-top media events, the creators of test-tube ‘meat’ keep claiming their pink slime-like ‘product’ will revolutionize the way the world eats. Really?
I don’t know about you, but about the only use my household land-line gets any more is serving as a conduit for telemarketers (“I’m calling from Credit Card Services with a special offer”), scam artists (“You have qualified for a free government grant!”) or pollsters (“We have a short survey that will only take a few minutes”).
Given the results of a “short survey” that appeared on the website of Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, it appears that online voting generates results that reflect audience bias, rather than in genuine sentiments.
At least that’s my interpretation of the results of a recent poll that asked Britons, “Would you eat lab-grown meat to save the environment?”
“High-tech hamburgers,” as the newspaper survey styled the “test-tube meat,” have been positioned as a potential solution to the eco-impact of growing global demand for meat. “But maybe money and time could be better invested elsewhere for food sustainability,” the accompanying story stated.
Since the estimated cost of growing meat-like tissue in vitro has been estimated at about $325,000 to produce a couple of “patties” — basically slabs of tasteless protein — yes, there are better ways to meet the demand for meat.
Although Dr. Mark Post, a medical doctor, a Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands and the head of the fake meat project, has been riding a non-stop wave of publicity over the potential of artificial meat, even the most optimistic observers—and investors, who are likewise loving the over-the-top publicity — consider commercial production to be years or even decades away.
Yet the media coverage has been almost universal in swallowing predictions that this development will “revolutionize” the way the world eats, especially because fake meat is always positioned against the backdrop of climate change and its potential impact on agriculture. For example, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2011 claimed that full-scale production of what they called “cultured meat” could reduce water, land and energy use, as well as emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases.
Now, I’ll grant you that it takes less land to operate a multi-story factory/laboratory churning with giant tanks of “cultured meat,” versus the acreage needed for pastures, cropland, feedlots, corrals, etc. No question. I’ll give Dr. Post that one.
All the rest is highly suspect, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Asking the fundamental question
Veggie activists — of course — are thrilled by the idea of artificial meat. In a statement, the UK branch of PETA stated that, “[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”
So here’s what I want to know. Can a truly committed vegan in good conscience eat fake meat?
That’s not a rhetorical question, given that the positioning of fake meat isn’t just as (allegedly) a more efficient way of producing food but as the only way to bypass the resistance of meat-eaters to giving up their beloved beef.
Keep in mind that the production of this test-tube creation requires “bovine tissue” to initiate the process. That material isn’t exactly laying around on a shelf somewhere. It can only be obtained by “exploiting” a cow, which is a serious no-no for vegan purists. According to a BBC News report on Dr. Post’s project, “The process starts with stem cells extracted from bovine muscle tissue, which are then cultured in a laboratory with nutrients and growth-promoting solution. Within three weeks, the stem cells coalesce into small strips of ‘muscle tissue’ (BBC quote marks) about a centimeter long and a few millimeters thick.”
Solidified pink slime, to be precise.
But more importantly, consider the claim that it would require less energy to grow meat in a tank, versus in an animal. Isn’t that’s presuming that human technology is more efficient than Mother Nature? C’mon. Where else is that even possible?
Oh, yeah. With modern agriculture, animal genetics, crop science, biotechnology, livestock production and a host of other food-related activities.
Fact is, the very technologies activists love to hate when they’re deployed by corporate entities to manage high-efficiency farms, feedlots and growout houses are embraced with enthusiasm when they’re used to produce the most artificial of all the processed foods with which we modern consumers have been blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it.
If you’re a PETA believer, I would love to hear the justification of investing billions in a super high-tech, totally artificial “meat” production system that still depends on animal sources for the primary substrate. How does that square with the “just leave the animals alone” mantra, or with insisting that natural/organic/family-farmed food is so much better for people and the planet?
It doesn’t, of course.
But don’t bother holding your breath for the commercialization of fake meat, or for a coherent argument from PETA.
Either one is still light years away from ever happening.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.