Test Tube Meat: The New Black?

Via Karl Saliter
on Mar 3, 2012
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by Horia Varlan

So, meat made from stem cells, sampled from an animal and grown in vitro?

Planet-saving, hunger-stopping factory farm exit strategy, of ubergross on wheels?  Tell me, because I’m stuck here. I want what this stuff would bring, but I do not want this stuff. First burger is due out in October. Are we playing God?  Are we not failing miserably in that role already, regarding the current meat industry?

It is creepy. But less creepy than what happens now to make a “natural” burger by a fat juicy mile. If you are not skeeved-out enough by meat manufacturing today to run for the broccoli forest, you are asleep at the mental wheel, my friend. Bust out some ahimsa, baby! Watch and wake:



The thing that most terrifies me about Petri dish meat is what we do not know.

We don’t know what eating the stuff will do to us. We don’t know what manufacturing muscle, and then consuming, digesting and eliminating it on a large scale will do to the planet. Remember, the automobile came onto the scene as the solution to horse pollution.

The first burger will cost $400k to produce, according to The Economist. All action will then of course shift to the great question. “How can we make it cheaper?” That question will drive all further research, and with that as the driving question, we are in dangerous waters, my friend. Coupled (as afterthoughts) with taste, and maybe nutrition, or at least how to spin the stuff as healthy, the “Wal-marting” of the product will be the holy grail.

Here’s a sunny, bright-side Huffington Post article and video which give a decent enough overview. In the comments, “Open Circles” hits my above point well:

“Sort of reminds me of the first baby formula. The scientists thought they knew everything about breast milk so he replicated that into a synthetic baby formula. Turns out they didn’t know everything about breast milk, which obviously led to a pretty bad outcome. Has anyone considered that our knowledge about food may not be complete? Look at the obesity and health results related to all the ‘enriched,’ ‘fortified’ and ‘improved’ foods that we consume now.”

That touches on what I fear. The part that we don’t know we don’t know. What beast lurks within this solution, slouching towards Beth and Ken, ready to invisibly begin the next huge global health crisis, from inside their bellies?

The vision of factory-farmed meat becoming “real” beef, and escalating into the luxury realm, is about eleven kinds of creepy too. Proponents of in vitro meat are already referring to factory farming as “traditional” farming, and that is a dangerous inaccuracy.

by Sterling College

On the face of it, I don’t like it. At all. Yet this innovation hits me in a very vulnerable place. I’m an animal welfare advocate.  From over here, this looks like trainloads less suffering for the cows, chickens and pigs out there, who did nothing to us and are treated horribly. Their deaths are almost as deplorable as the lives we force them to lead.

Help me out, elephant readers. Where do I stand on this?

Am I open (dumb) enough to trust that this will be a solution, or do I hold to my initial thought that this has disaster written all over it?




Editor: Kate Bartolotta.


About Karl Saliter

Karl is a circus artist sculptor writer miscreant gypsy, living in Mexico. He has written two novels, "Compassion's Bitch," and "Breakfast In A Cloud," and has published neither. He often feels as if he was born under a silver whale of a frisbee moon in the back of a red cartoon pickup truck. That careening down route 66 at speed, he leapt up into the cab, took the wheel, stuck his baby elbow out the rolled-down window, and that though the truck had awesome chrome mirrors, he never looked back. He hopes you frequently feel the same.


18 Responses to “Test Tube Meat: The New Black?”

  1. monkeybeans says:

    Sign me up I'm ready to be the guinea pig if it means a shift away from today's factory farming. Who knows what we can do, why stop short. At least this is stem cell and not GMOs, cloning vs hybridization, I dunno, sounds a little safer.

    If humans won't eat it AT LEAST we can consider it for our pets, that would be a huge impact on the factory farming numbers and the mass suffering that goes into feeding our companion animals. And Fido don't give a shit.

  2. karlsaliter says:

    You have a point, Monkeybeans, Fido's ambivalence is the stuff of legend. Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm with you on the reat value in a shift away from factory farming.

    My friend said "I'm all for it! I'll never eat the stuff anyway, and who cares if they grow horns, feeding their unhealthy appetites?" It is an interestingly liberated approach.

  3. Linda Morelli says:

    Well Karl, I haven't had a piece of meat since that $120 Standing Rib Roast I put out for Christmas and don't intend to try even this new version. We are however consuming one helluva lot of GMO soybeans and must give pause even to this but what choice do we have on the soybean thing? The market is keeping some good folks working for a living. Fairly well convinced no good can come form the test tube meat even knowing as little as I do about such things. I'll go with my gut on this one and stick with the nuts and berries and lovely veggies.

  4. maru says:

    I just wonder to what extent humans will go to satisfy their appetites and pleasures, manipulating crops, trophy hunting, emptying the seas, destroying the planet… now creating meat in vitro… is there a limit fr human greed? I can only see a health disaster in the making. BUT if it will save animlas from the gtotesque life and death in the current factory farming system, let's go for it… I guess for the first time humans will be the guinea pigs… and I wont eat it anyway…

  5. oz_ says:

    Disaster written all over it.

    For an in-depth look at why, read:

    If that's too much, then this snippet may suffice:

    "We are smart. Smart enough to create technologies like agriculture and machinery that seem to solve certain immediate problems. We seek more certainty in our food supply so we plant and tend crops. We have to settle down in one place to do this but that, at first, seems a side benefit. We want to get places fast, and do harder work faster so we invent machine-based tools that require external sources of energy to run. We solve a problem, the problem of increasing demand for the products, by making those products more rapidly. At every turn, the smart ape has solved a problem of immediacy and done so with extraordinary results.

    What this ape has also done is ignore a meta-problem. Every problem solution carries with it the seeds of another problem of greater scope."

    The problem is what Dilworth refers to as the 'VCP" or Vicious Circle Principle. Test tube meat is a perfect example.

  6. oz_ says:

    And if you prefer a higher level critique – here's what Derrick Jensen has to say on the general question of science making life better:

    That’s a very common question that is asked: Hasn’t science done a lot of good for the world? For the world? No. Show me how the world—the real, physical world, once filled with passenger pigeons, great auks, cod, tuna, salmon, sea mink, lions, great apes, migratory songbirds, forests—is a better place because of science. Science has done far more than facilitate the destruction of the natural world: it has increased this culture’s ability to destroy by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all we want about conservation biology and about the use of science to measure biodiversity, but in the real, physical world the real, physical effects of science on real, living nonhumans has been nothing short of atrocious. Science has been given three hundred years or so to prove itself. And of course three hundred years ago great auks (and fish, and whales) filled the seas, and passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews filled the skies, and soil was deeper, and native forests still stood. If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.

    Without science, there would not be ten times more plastic than phytoplankton in the oceans. The Nazi Holocaust was, as I made clear in The Culture of Make Believe, and as Zygmunt Bauman made clear in Modernity and the Holocaust, a triumph of the modern industrial rationalistic scientific instrumentalist perspective. Global warming, which may end in planetary murder, would not be running rampant without the assistance of science and scientists. Without science there would be no hole in the ozone. Without science and scientists, we would not face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Without science, there would be no industrial civilization, which even without global warming would still be leading to planetary murder. Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture.

  7. oz_ says:

    And finally, in regard to this:

    "From over here, this looks like trainloads less suffering for the cows, chickens and pigs out there, who did nothing to us and are treated horribly. Their deaths are almost as deplorable as the lives we force them to lead."

    What makes you think test tube meat will replace, rather than simply augment, this mass slaughter? Meat consumption will, so I'd suspect, explode, especially in nations like China and India, which will drive demand up and increase the slaughter. Worst of all worlds.

    To understand why, you may wish to investigate Jevon's Paradox, which applies not only to energy supplies (and explains why conservation measures which rely on technology to increase efficiency paradoxically tend to INCREASE consumption, all other factors being equal) but also to any commodity.

  8. karlsaliter says:

    "Greed is the mother of all suffering." – Pandit Tigunait

    I love that response! Thanks for reading and commenting, it means a lot to me. I think if you offered most people a moment of bliss for themselves in exchange for permanently ruining an acre of rainforest which they did not own, they would only ask "What, you mean no cost to me?"

  9. karlsaliter says:

    Hi Oz. I love that you included the "If that's too much" clause. I opened Cassandra, and will check the full article out soon, but on the face, I agree completely. That is absolutely what scares me the most. We know enough to create this. We do not yet know ourselves (or the project) enough to question it deeply before creating it.

  10. karlsaliter says:

    I've wondered what it would be like to live on a planet unfucked by science.

  11. karlsaliter says:

    Now THAT gets me thinking. (The earlier posts, just basic agreement.) I often point out to people that it is not always "either/or", and yet I fell into that trap in my approach here. Most instructive: you may have swayed me. Less animal suffering was really the one upside here. I'll look into Jevon.

  12. oz_ says:

    Karl, I suspect the devil is in the details, but my sense is it would not work out well for our fellow creatures (or for us).

    In the realm of energy, Jevons – an 19th century economist – observed that when technologies related to coal increase its efficiency, then prices tended to drop, which then increased consumption. Many studies have found similar effects in oil and gas in the 20th century. Other studies have demonstrated that the same principle extends into other areas, other commodities.

    The fascinating thing to me is that not only did people ratchet up their consumption enough to make up for the efficiency gains, but in fact even more than that to increase net consumption! This is probably due to the way our neural circuitry processes perceptions of scarcity.

    Worth nothing, however, is that the increase in consumption can be forestalled by, for example, judicious application of price supports to ensure that prices do NOT drop following an efficiency increase. It's really cost that is the direct behavioral driver, after all. So if you keep that steady, you can maintain current levels of consumption. Which is the best you can do in this scenario, unfortunately.

    Now you could conceive of a scheme, at least theoretically, whereby if test tube meat ever scaled enough to drive down the price of meat overall, artificial price supports could be engaged to keep the prices high, and to keep consumption from increasing, which would mean less slaughter. So I think your idea is possible – theoretically.

    However, we already know that our government not only does not act to keep meat prices high, but in fact subsidizes meat to keep prices low and so upward pressure remains to consume. Thus, it seems wildly implausible that government would suddenly shift gears to move in the opposite direction.

    In point of fact, the only way to drive DOWN meat consumption is going to be to increase its price to consumers significantly. So a far better approach, if the goal is to reduce the slaughter of food animals, is to simply withdraw the massive subsidies that make meat cheap (this includes subsidies for animal feed aka corn). In other words, you'd basically need to overturn the foundations of US agricultural policy.

    Well, OK there are actually two other ways to drive down meat consumption that I can think of off the top of my head. The first is a dramatic decrease in the consuming human population (i.e. an ecological die off), and the other is mass impoverishment, to the point where most people cannot afford even subsidized meat. Those are not going to be policy goals for any US government, of course, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily unlikely in the near term.

  13. karlsaliter says:

    Yep, cut the subsidies and include the invisible water subsidies, and how about tasking factory farms with bona fide environmental cleanup? Meat would be 25 bucks a pound in a week. Which it should be.

  14. Kat says:

    This reminds me of Better off Ted (s1ep2) when they try and grow beef. It was both hilarious and horrifying. The whole show is a reminder of how "out there" our science has become. It's on netflix- check it out.
    Also- I will not eat that if I have a choice in the matter. My biggest worry is how the government will regulate it- if it gets to the point where it's a really convincing facsimile and cheaply produced, what's to stop manufacturers from using it without our knowledge?
    If I wasn't already on the fence about meat consumption, I certainly am now.
    It give me the willies just thinking about it.

  15. karlsaliter says:

    I'm with you, the GMO soy is worth ditching. Wish they had to label that stuff, in fact, I believe Mosanto sued farmers who put labels on their food saying "GMO free". I go light on the soy and am a nut, bean and avocado freak. Yeah, no danger of me trying this stuff anytime soon.

  16. karlsaliter says:

    I can see that fear being realized about 10 minutes after in vitro meat becomes cheaper then the real thing. Scary thought, and more than a little likely to happen.

  17. Jill Barth says:

    I posted this to the Elephant Green Facebook page. Thanks for sharing!

    Jill Barth, Green Editor
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  18. karlsaliter says:

    Thanks, Jill!