Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Grow Your Steak? The Case for In Vitro Meat (now with addendum)

In today's issue of Dagens Nyheter (Sweden's leading daily, followed up here) it is reported that a research team at the Chalmers University of Technology under the leadership of Julie Gold – Associate Professor of Biological Physics – are making serious and so far rather successful attempts to grow actual (red) meat in the lab on the basis of single cellular components. Professor Gold motivates the research from salient environmentalist reasons, based on the proven climate effects of global meat production (although the size of this part of the problem is currently debated).

Another obvious reason not mentioned by Gold in her short statement has to do with animal welfare concerns. Industrial meat production in practice necessarily and systematically degrades and tortures animals, an effect that can be avoided completely if the vision of Gold and her colleagues can be realised on a large scale. Also, the approach has a clear advantage to biotechnological solutions to agricultural production problems regarding grain and vegetables, since in vitro meat production will be practically possible to confine to closed off production plants, thus avoiding the many risks surrounding GMO regarding long term ecological side-effects.

Now, an immediate reaction to this line of reasoning is this: but why take this detour over lengthy and probably expensive lab experiments when there is the simple solution of humanity making the change to a vegetarian diet? This point is partly valid, but ignores the realities of politics and policy making, especially in democracies. Eating meat is a firmly established gastronomical practice in many many countries. In addition, the agricultural lobby is a powerful political force in many countries – France being the obvious example in Europe. Making real moves to severely restrict or impede meat consumption and production would in most cases be sheer political suicide by any government. In today's political climate it may be added that such political acts of seppuku can be expected to be exploited by political forces on the darker end of the scale.

Thus, the in vitro meat vision indeed seems to have a lot going for it from a moral point of view. It remains to be seen how the scientific prospect develops as research continues.

A few hours after having posted this blog piece, I found the homepage of the In Vitro Meat Concortium. Also there, the animal welfare argument is missing, but they add a few others having to do with the negative side-effects of transporting livestock and meat across the globe.

And here, you will find a visionary article from 2005 from the journal Tissue Engineering - including a number of further references at the bottom of the page addressing connected ethical issues.