On Monday the world’s very first laboratory-grown beef hamburger was tested in London. Popped out of a petri dish and plopped into a frying pan the burger was cooked up and served to two volunteers, US based food author Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Ruetzler. The burger in question was developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands with the hope of discovering a more sustainable way to raise meat. The burger was made by taking stem cells harvested from a living cell and placing them in a bioreactor holding a nutrient mixture that would help them proliferate. It took roughly three months to grow the 20,000 0.02 inch strands of muscle fiber used in making the burger. Which is a considerably shorter time-frame then it takes to raise an entire cow from birth to slaughter. The muscle fibers were then mixed with salt, egg powder, and breadcrumbs to improve flavor, and beetroot juice and saffron for color. It had been reported that this little experiment was five years in the making and cost a total of $332,00, but what did the taste-testers have to say?
Well, the reviews were mixed. The bottom line is that the texture of this patty was spot on, though the flavor was somewhat lacking. Since the burger patty was made from muscle fiber, there wasn’t a lot of fat which means it wasn’t as juicy or greasy as is generally expected from a hamburger. The general consensus seemed to be that the test-tube burger tasted something like a cross between a Boca Burger Patty and a Fast Food Hamburger, and even Mark Post conceded that the flavor would need to be improved before this could become a viable meat replacement for the majority.
How about public opinion? Well, it’s a pretty mixed bag. This story has generated a lot of discussion, a lot of debate, and a lot of controversy amongst both meat-eaters, and vegans, and frankly I’m surprised by the widely negative response coming out of the vegan community. It seems to me that most of the animal-rights organizations, and vegan organizations and non-profits are for this new development in food technology. PETA has endorsed it, as have non-profits like Farm Sanctuary, but when it comes to individual vegans; vegans like you and I, the backlash is overwhelming. You have vegans calling out these organizations for their support of this new technology and threatening to quit supporting them if they continue to endorse it. You have vegans calling out other vegans and declaring them ‘not vegan’ if they support this new development. You have all manner of people in general saying all manner of crazy things and it seems that very few of these outraged individuals actually know what they’re talking about. To me the negative response seems to be a ‘heat of the moment’ thing, an immediate emotional response, rather then a logical or intellectual one. Which is why I felt the need to write this post. I’m not claiming to be particularly intellectual but I feel it’s very important for some vegan somewhere to speak up, and make a thought-provoking case here. As vegans I think we’re doing more harm then good with an outright show of disapproval or refusal of this new development, and we’re severely overlooking the potential good it has.
Before I get into it I want to make clear that as a Vegan I have no interest in eating In Vitro meat. I have no interest in consuming test tube burgers, or laboratory grown meat, or ‘ethical meat.’ If this product becomes available in my local grocery store I will not consume it. Why? Because reduced animal suffering or not, this is still meat, and eating meat regardless of how it’s grown or where it comes from is not vegan. This is still an animal product, derived from an animal. I also went vegan initially for health reasons and so laboratory meat, or regular meat it doesn’t make a difference, they’re both still unhealthy in my opinion. So I personally wouldn’t eat this, and I wouldn’t condone another vegan eating it, but the important thing to remember here is that this is not a product being made and marketed towards vegans and vegetarians. This is a product being made for omnivores, for meat-eaters, and as such I support it. It’s far better for meat-eaters to eat laboratory meat, then it is for them to eat conventional meat for so many reasons.
Firstly we live in an overpopulated world, with an ever increasing population. Those population increases mean a higher demand for animal-based foods. World hunger is not something that we’ve been able to cease, and as our population continues to explode this problem will only get worse. Our planet is under severe stress, we do not have infinite resources, and we are using them without caution. We can not continue to sustain our rate of growth, or development and our overburdened planet can not continue to sustain the massive animal agriculture industry. Deforestation, land erosion, biodiversity decline, energy use, water depletion, pollution of eco-systems, land, water-ways, and oceans, poor air-quality, and a rise in greenhouse gasses and carbon emissions. These are the serious problems that we face, and they only grow worse as our population increases. According to the United Nations Animal Agriculture - that’s factory farming of cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, goats, etc... factory egg laying facilities, and factory dairy farms - are responsible for 40+% of global warming. That’s more then the entire transpiration sector - think cars, trucks, trains, planes, boats etc... - combined. Animal agriculture is literally killing the planet, and it isn’t doing us any favors either. Laboratory grown meat has the potential to change all of that, and even if it doesn’t solve all of these problems completely it will at least help to decrease their severity.
Hannah Tuomisto of Oxford University stated “At the global level if all meat was lab-grown, the greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 80% and the water use by 90%.” An 80% reduction in emissions and a 90% reduction in water usage is huge! Monumentally huge on that scale alone we should be looking into considering lab-grown meat as a viable option and replacement to the conventional. Another independent study found that lab-grown meat uses 45% less energy then the average global representative figure for farming cattle. The study also found that lab-grown meat also produced 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 99% less land. Less energy wasted, and less land used, which means more land that can be used to house or ever-growing population. More land for us to grow food crops on, more land for us to turn into refuges, protected areas, or simply give back to nature.
This isn’t even taking into account other environmental and health factors like the spread of salmonella, E. Coli and other food bourne illness. Food bourne illness comes from animal feces coming into contact with food products. If you don’t raise animals for food, growing your food in a lab instead then there isn’t any feces. Theoretically this would decrease the number of cases of food borne illness per year. The 1 billion plus animals raised for human consumption in this country annually produce more then 3 trillion tons of waste. Since that waste is not disposed of properly it is often left to contaminate land, water ways, rivers, lakes, and other crops causing us to become ill. No more factory farmed animals means no more trillion tons of improperly disposed of waste. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are another factor. Since farmed animals are kept in such deplorable conditions they are routinely given antibiotics to prevent them from becoming sick. This has led to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria entering our environment, and this has many scientists and doctors concerned over our future. We only have so many antibiotics available to us, if they cease to work on the bacteria and diseases that they’re meant to heal us from what then? Many scientists, and zoologists believe that the next big pandemic will come from an animal source, likely from a farmed animal who has close contact with humans. Take away animal farming in favor of lab-grown meat and you reduce the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the potential for new pandemic or epidemic pathogens.
Environmentally speaking there is no good or valid reason why lab-grown meat shouldn’t be researched or supported.
As for world hunger it's ridiculous to think that we'll ever be able to produce enough meat to feed all the hungry in the world. It simply isn't feasible when you take into account how many animals would have to be raised - in an already burdened system - to accomplish this daunting task. The animal agriculture system that we have in place just isn't effective or efficient. If you take a look at the numbers you see that they just don't add up in any way that makes sense. 30% of Earths land mass is taken up by animal agriculture. More then 260 million acres of U.S. forest alone have been cleared in order to grow crops to feed to animals. 70% of the grain and cereals that are grown in the United States are fed to farmed animals. Dose this make sense to anyone? In a world where children in less fortunate countries die of starvation every day is it ethical to continue to feed important food staples to animals just so that we can eat them ourselves? What do we get in return? It takes 13 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of meat back, and even farmed fish need to be fed 5 pounds of wild caught fish in order to return 1 pound of farmed fish. This is not only wildly inefficient, but to some degree it's down right disgusting. It's been said that there isn't a global food shortage, that the problem is in the distribution, and you could make an argument there for government corruption in third world nations but it should also be pointed out that if we 'redistributed' that grain that we feed to farmed animals to humans, the 'food crisis' would end. We can effectively grow enough food to feed every person on this planet, the problem is that we greedily choose to feed that food to animals that we intend to eat to satisfy our own palates.
Food, and land however are not the only wasted resources. Water is another hugely wasted resource in the animal agriculture industry. Many countries are already facing massive water shortages, droughts, and are in water crisis. Here in the U.S. because we're not faced with it everyday it's out of sight and out of mind, but the prediction is that in as little as another decade the U.S. too will be feeling the effects of a global water crisis. Water is now being labeled "Blue Gold" and yet we continue to waste it as though it were infinite Did you know that 2,400 Gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of meat? Where as only 25 Gallons are used to produce 1 pound of wheat. That's a staggering difference.
It simply doesn't make sense to continue farming animals the way that we've been doing. If ending world hunger is something that we're serious about as a nation and as a society then we have to at least consider the benefits of lab-grown meat; as lab-grown meat has the potential to end animal agriculture while still providing meat for those who wish to continue to consume it, and it can provide a realistic solution to ending world hunger. Lab-grown meat also has the potential to help us avert the coming global water crisis. Taking these two things into consideration there is no valid reason for why lab-grown meat shouldn't be researched or supported.
Then there’s the case for animal rights. As animal rights activists and vegans we strive to end animal suffering. Our whole purpose, our whole mission is the end of needless and cruel suffering, torture, brutalization, and murder of billions of animals. We do this through education, through speaking our truth, by engaging in conversations on this topic and by encouraging others to go vegan or at least vegetarian. It’s a noble cause for sure, but the sad truth is that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we fight, we are not enough. We can never, and will never cause the entire world to go vegan. That isn’t even the slightest bit realistic. There will always be people who eat meat, and rather then fight those people on an issue that will never change for them why wouldn’t we as vegans want to endorse lab meat? Lab meat can and will put an end to animal suffering in a way that we as vegans will never be able to do. When lab meat is a viable option, inexpensive, and easily available and accepted it will cause a massive decrease in factory farming. Eventually it could cause all animal farming to stop completely. It’s not so crazy to imagine lab meat will become the future and conventionally raised meat will be a thing of the past.
For all those vegans who will not endorse lab meat because it is not vegan I ask you to reconsider and rethink your position. You will never be able to make the world vegan, and therefore there will always be animal suffering. Lab meat can change that. Yes it would still be meat and yes it would still be from an animal, and yes maybe a couple of animals would have to suffer for us to harvest the stem cells, but you don’t have to eat it. It is not for you, it is for meat-eaters. In my opinion it’s preferable to have only 1 or 2 or even 10 animals suffering then it is to have a billion plus animals suffering every year. I think it’s foolish to carry around this indignant, superior, all or nothing attitude, and it’s what gives vegans a bad name. I’m reminded of a famous quote by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau that goes “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” Our goal as animal rights activists and as vegans should be to eliminate as much animal suffering as possible, even if this is not the way we envisioned doing that, this is something that we should be happy about.
Now we come to health. Is lab-grown meat nutritious? Presumably it would have a similar nutritional content as conventionally raised meat, however there is the potential to make this meat healthier then the conventional. As only muscle fibers are being used the resulting meat would be leaner, and that can only be a benefit to meat-eaters. With the rates of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases skyrocketing a healthier meat option can only help to lift some of the burden from our strained medical system. Surely meat, regardless of how it’s raised or grown will cause disease, and an increased risk of developing disease, but if the risk doesn’t have to be as great as it is currently then that’s a win in my book.
As for other health aspects, some people have raised concerns that lab-grown meat is somehow fake. That it’s a ‘frankenfood’ that it has potential health consequences that we are not yet aware of. On that point I say it’s true that we do not know if lab-grown meat will effect the human body in a negative way. If the meat is clean - meaning it’s from an organic source animal - and it contains no additives then I can’t see it as being any more harmful then a conventionally raised animal. If the processing industry begins to manipulate the product then there is potential for unintended consequences there, but we can’t know that until we test it.
I do however think it’s silly, misinformed, and hypocritical to say that lab-grown meat is ‘fake’ meat. It’s not fake at all. It’s grown from cow stem cells. It comes from a real cow, and therefor it is real cow meat. There isn’t anything fake about that, the difference is in the process but since when did an unconventional process become the basis for labeling something as fake? Take In Vitro fertilization for example. This is an amazing technology that helps couples who are unable to conceive naturally have a baby. Are ‘test-tube’ babies ‘fake babies?’ because they were initially grown in a lab? Are In Vitro babies considered less then human in our culture? No. Are they considered other? No. Do they look, act, or smell any different then conventionally conceived children? No, of course not. It would be insane to even imply such a thing. So why then is it being suggested that lab meat is somehow not real? Do you consider Aspirin a real medicine? What about cough syrup, is that real? These are products developed and manufactured in a laboratory for our health, we consider them medicine not ‘fake’ medicine. So why is lab-grown meat any different? The ‘fake’ argument is one that doesn’t make any sense, and it only shows ignorance on the part of people who obviously have no understanding of science, medicine, technology, and food manufacturing.
For those who say lab-meat is ‘unnatural’ I think you need to reconsider what is and isn’t natural. Is lab meat less natural then raising a billion animals in cramped and confined spaces? Is it less natural then pumping animals full of antibiotics because they’re standing belly deep in their own shit, in addition to hormones that make them grow faster? Because that’s what conventional meat is, is that more natural? Take into account for a second the slaughterhouse, in which hundred of animals are slaughtered in minutes on a fast moving conveyer belt to which they are strung up alive and gutted so that their blood and feces drip onto the floor. A place in which animals are scalded in boiling water while still alive to remove their hair and feathers and where sick animals foaming at the mouth with disease are routinely slaughtered for human consumption. How about the cleaning process in which animal carcases are washed in a solution of bleach, and other chemicals to make them fit for human consumption, is that natural? Is it natural to have numerous chickens crammed into one cage stacked on top of other cages so that their shit falls through the wire onto the birds below? Is it natural to remove animals toes, beaks, snouts, hooves, horns and tails so that we can manhandle them more easily? Is it natural to artificially inseminate cows so that their pregnancy will cause them to lactate so that we can sell, buy and drink her milk? Is it natural to feed animals GMO corn and soy, animal by-products and the feces and waste of other animals? If your answer to these questions is no, then you need to wake up and realize that these are common occurrences in the animal agriculture industry. These are everyday things, this is how the system operates. Not a single one of these things would apply to lab grown meat, so how is it less natural? Is murder natural? Is it natural to murder living breathing beings? Lab grown meat doesn’t murder.
What about other food products commonly bought and sold in stores. I’m talking about frozen foods, prepackaged foods, t.v. dinners, pop, soda, minute rice, box macaroni and cheese, canned soup, bottled drinks and beverages, granola bars, power bars, processed meats, sausages, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, refined sugar, refined flour, baked goods, vegan cheese, vegan meat, and all other shelf-stable foods. Are any of these natural? The technical answer would be no. Of course some products are more natural then others but virtually all shelf-stable foods are the work of food scientists working in a laboratory. These foods are all manufactured, and don’t you even begin to tell me that you never or have never eaten a food that falls into this category. If everyone on the planet ate as ‘natural’ as they claimed to then the entire food industry would collapse and go out of business. Even health nuts eat some form of processed food. In my opinion if you’re sitting down to a can of cola, and a hot dog you have no right to call lab meat unnatural. If you’re sitting down to a glass of non-organic soy milk, and a vegan steak sandwich you have no right to call lab meat ‘unnatural.’ If you enjoy an oreo, or a vitamin water, or a vegan marshmallow, or a can of soup now and then you have no right to call lab meat ‘unnatural.’ If you eat at fast food restaurant - even if you’re eating vegan fast food, - or even if you’re dining out at a conventional ‘sit-down’ restaurant you have no right to call lab meat ‘unnatural.’
To me, in terms of the processing aspect, eating lab meat would be no different then eating a box of chicken nuggets or a Tofurkey roast at Thanksgiving. In fact, lab meat may actually be less processed then many conventional meat products such as nuggets and hot dogs, as well as many vegan products such as veggie burgers, veggie chicken, and veggie sausages. So you can’t site ‘unnatural’ as a reason against. As for the ‘ick’ factor eating a lab meat burger is no more disgusting then eating a hot dog, or a burger at a fast food restaurant. I mean really, do you know what goes into those things? Yet people do both of those things day in and day out without so much as a second thought.
Of course there is also the opinion that since there are so many great meat alternatives available already that meat-eaters don’t take advantage of this will not catch on. There is also the fear that this will become a billion dollar industry and we all know what happens then. People say that because certain individuals are ignorant and will never give up conventional meat that this research is a waste of money. Well all I have to say to that is I honestly don’t think there will be a choice in the matter in the future. Our planet Is so devastated, we can barely sustain the life we have let alone the boom that’s coming that I don’t think we’ll be given the option to choose. As science-fictiony as it sounds I think if this becomes viable there will be a global decision to end factory farming in favor of it. I think that this will be the new way of things, it will be mandated and we won’t have the option of going back to conventionally raised meat. The only option we’ll have is to be vegan or eat lab-meat, and that’s probably how it should be anyway. I think there will come a time when eating any meat at all will be frowned upon, and so if you want to eat meat this will be the only acceptable way to do it, or risk becoming a social outcast. Perhaps that’s how things should be, though I know some would disagree with me there, anyway that’s a long way off. Lab meat won’t even be viable for commercial sale for another ten to twenty years, so everyone should just relax a little bit.
Really, I think the majority of the backlash and the negative reactions are coming from the ‘ick’ factor. People truly don’t like knowing where their food comes from or how it’s made. Most manufactured foods don’t advertise the fact that they are indeed manufactured and you never get to know exactly how it’s done due to ‘trade secrets, ‘ but this is different. It’s such a hot topic, and it’s generated so much intense interest that everyone will be keeping an eye on the story, and inevitably this means everyone will probably know more then they care to about the process. That alone will gross people out, then when you add to the mix any preconceived notions they may have about health, and food, well forget it. Reactions explode and people say crazy, ignorant and irrational things.
Bearing that in mind I strongly urge you - vegan or not - to seriously consider the potential for good here. Please consider the positive implications that this new technology could have on human health, animal welfare, the environment, and world hunger. Look past your initial reactionary feelings and look deep into how this could bring a positive change in the world. Realize that this isn’t about you, it isn’t an attack on you, it isn’t a criticism of you. Scientists are trying to come up with a realistic and viable solution to many of the critical problems we now face, and those solutions brought to fruition do more to help the world then the ideals you hold but don’t activate. Talk is just that, talk. It doesn’t solve anything, we need to take action which is what is happening here. It may not be the action you wanted, or dreamed of or hoped for, but a step forward is better then a step to the side, and as long as people keep moving in the right direction real change will finally come.
So stay positive, think critically, and reserve judgement.
For us, for the animals, and for the planet.