in vitro meat

September 3, 2009

This is where most of us get our ground beef from. (credit: www.marlerblog.com)

This is where most of us get our ground beef. (credit: http://www.marlerblog.com)

Seed Magazine (my favorite science publication), has an interview with Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a non-profit organization aimed developing scalable and tasty meat grown on a petri dish (basically). Growing meat in a controlled environment like a petri dish is more environmentally efficient, in energy, in water, in land usage. As developing nations like China and India become wealthier, the demand for meat only increases.

Of course, the best scenario is that we all become vegetarians, both because it’s healthier and more environmentally friendly. However, I’m not quite there yet myself (my mind can’t quite overpower my evolved lust for high-protein, high-energy flesh) and so can’t demand that the rest of the world must be as well. If we assume that people are going to eat meat, why not have it come from a controlled environment, where fat content and every other chemical can be controlled?

Interestingly, the technology used to grow little bits of meat is hijacked from the field of tissue engineering, which aims to grow everything from skin to muscle to organ tissue. The limiting factor for tissue (be it for eating or healing) is getting the blood vessels built so the tissue can be sufficiently large. Vascularization of artificial tissue is very tricky thing that we haven’t quite mastered yet.

Thus, the applications for this technology would only be (for the present) in ground meat, where the small amounts grown in vitro (meaning in the lab, not in a real animal) could be put together like we’re used to. But still, ground meat comprises a very large part (Matheny claims roughly half, but I don’t have an independent number) of the world’s meat consumption and so could still have a significant impact.

You might react to this idea of eating meat grown in a test tube as just another part of our over-commercialized, over-scientificized (my own word), over-supply-chain-ized agricultural industry. We should be eating our meat from local, grass-based, holistic farms. I agree that the nice local farm alternative feels better (and IS better at the moment), but if we can produce meat that’s healthier, cheaper, significantly more environmentally friendly, and perhaps even tastier than our local farm, how long are you going hold out just on principle?

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