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.


  1. I agree that this can be an ethical problem. I guess this statement is more about trying to market their research rather than it will become an industrial process in the end. It is difficult to grow in vitro meat at a price that is reasonable. I associate a bit to HeLa-cells (Henrietta Lacks), whose cells have been cultivated since the 50th century. Is she really dead or alive? Her cells are a kind of invitro

  2. Hmm, you mean her cells were retrieved in the 1950's, I presume. Well she is surely dead, isn't she, but something of her remains, of course.

    Just to clarify: my point was that actually in vitro meat is not much of an ethical problem - rather the other way around.

  3. "Industrial meat production in practice necessarily and systematically degrades and tortures animals"
    This is quite a bit rich claim if not a gross generalization which, as it seems to me, you have stated in order to create a premise for your argument, and therefore I don't find the argument credible.

    1. Thank you for this frank comment, Lisa!

      I'm sorry, I simply assumed that the general situation of animals in industrial meat production is common knowledge nowadays. Here's some rather accessible sources information on it (or, as it is sometimes called, factory farming) that you may find useful as a primer before you possibly move on to check out more advanced sources:

    2. Oh, and I completely forgot this very informative film that you need to log on to YouTube to watch: