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September 2005
From Fiction to Fork
By Mark Hawt

The suffering of animals is one of the most common reasons people cite for switching to a plant-based diet. Ten billion land animals a year are slaughtered for food in the U.S., and ethical vegans and vegetarians want no part of the misery. But as the popularity of meat analogs attests, many devout herbivores still crave an occasional hamburger or buffalo wing; indeed, imitation chicken, pork and beef made from wheat gluten or soy can be prepared to look and taste so much like their animal-based counterparts that you might find yourself asking, “Is this really vegan?”

So how would you feel about barbecuing a chicken breast if it did not involve killing the chicken? We’re not talking imitation meat here: this is genuine chicken flesh. The only difference is, rather than being raised on a high-fat diet in a crowded shed, this chicken meat was grown in a lab in vitro. Actually, it’s not even a complete chicken; it’s just the flesh.

Also known as cultured or laboratory-grown meat, in vitro (“within glass”) meat is produced in a cell culture, rather than from an animal. Hoping for a way to feed astronauts in extended space travel, scientists have been experimenting with in vitro meat since at least 2001. They haven’t produced anything for public consumption—not yet, anyway. Though the science behind it is new, the notion of cultured meat actually pre-dates space flight. Writing in The World in 2030 (1930), British statesman Frederick Edwin Smith imagined a society in which “It will no longer be necessary to go to the extravagant length of rearing a bullock in order to eat its steak. From one ‘parent’ steak of choice tenderness it will be possible to grow as large and as juicy a steak as can be desired.” Two years later, Winston Churchill optimistically declared, “Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Many ridiculed him (1982 is long gone), but Churchill’s comment now seems prescient.

Meat Without Feet
Leading the way in cultured-meat development is New Harvest, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization founded in 2004. Their website,, describes the two methods of producing in vitro meat for large-scale production. The first is to grow the cells on small beads that will expand with temperature changes. “The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.” The second technique is to grow the cells within thin, flat membranes, stretching the meat as it grows and then layering them for thickness. New Harvest claims cultured meat has the potential to be less polluting and more humane than conventional meat. It could also be healthier, since food-borne pathogens like salmonella and listeria would be dramatically reduced or eliminated.

“Our goal in starting New Harvest was to advance the development of meat substitutes, which can address much of the harm done to human health, the environment, and animal welfare by meat production and consumption,” says researcher Jason Matheny. “There are already some very compelling meat substitutes on the market, and I expect in the next decade, they’ll get even better. One of our board members, Fu-hung Hsieh, is at the forefront of developing new soy-based substitutes, and the textures he’s able to produce in his lab are amazing.”

If successful, the impact of in vitro meat on the environment alone could be enormous, reducing the greenhouse gases and methane generated by industrial animal agriculture. In July, British physicist Alan Calverd argued that animals raised for human consumption emit 21 percent of all the carbon dioxide that can be attributed to human activity, and thus going vegetarian could help control global warming. Dutch officials are taking cultured meat so seriously that they have given a grant to New Harvest scientist Henk Haagsman, a professor at Utrecht University’s Division of Public Health and Food Safety in the Netherlands, to produce it. But according to Dr. Haagsman, New Harvest is a long way from yielding anything consumers can try. “Products will probably not be on the market before 2012,” he says.

In Vitro Injustice?
Reaction from the animal rights community has been mixed. Though an informal survey suggests that most activists are in favor of cultured meat (see sidebar), some feel eating animals is simply to be avoided. “I would still want to put my energy into encouraging people not to eat animals,” says Lauren Ornelas of Viva!USA. “I guess I worry that people who won’t eat in vitro meat because of concerns that maybe it isn’t natural or would have a knee-jerk reaction that it tastes bad would continue to eat [traditional] meat anyway, so I would want to make sure that we get them away from consuming animals. However, I do see why some groups and individuals might want to promote it.”

Paul Shapiro, Factory Farming Campaign manager for the Humane Society of the United States, is among those in favor of promoting it. “In vitro meat has the potential to reduce an enormous amount of suffering,” he says. “From an animal advocacy perspective, its production could bring about a significant reduction in the number of farm animals languishing in factory farms and slaughter plants. If successful, in vitro meat would allow those who eat meat to consume products identical to that which they’re accustomed, but without impacting any sentient animals.”

“I can understand how different animal rights advocates [ARAs] might have different perspectives,” says Tom Regan, author of Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. “Of course, a crucial question asks, ‘Where did the in vitro material come from?’ If the cells are from factory farmed animals, then the injustice of their treatment will taint anything derived in the future. However, if (let us assume) no injustice is done in the procurement of the cells, then it’s more difficult to lodge an objection rooted in respect for animal rights. Collections of cells by themselves are not somebody. And without a somebody, it’s hard to understand how anyone’s rights could be violated. Given the assumption I mentioned, then, I don’t at present see why ARAs would have to be against in vitro meat on moral grounds.”

Yes, it would be ethically ideal if no animals were used to produce in vitro meat, but that’s unlikely. Matheny explains that cells used to produce cultured meat can be reproduced and given to others (before culturing) to produce meat in a lab, but this sharing will only go so far. “Depending on the kind of cell used,” he says, “there is a limit to the number of copies that can be made and distributed, known as the Hayflick limit. This limit is not well understood, but, for at least some cell types, it is so large that one could theoretically use one cell to produce the world’s annual meat supply. Whether this would be practical is another question. In any case, the number of animals that would need to be raised would be a very small fraction of the number currently raised. And in theory a muscle biopsy could be used, so that none of the animals have to be killed.”

While a laboratory-grown pork chop or filet mignon may be a decade or so away, researchers are determined to make it work. “It’s a big boat,” says Matheny. “There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the way meat is produced, and the volumes in which it’s currently consumed. With the dietary transition in developing countries toward Western meat-based diets, there’s now more reason than ever to be concerned. We can achieve much by reducing our consumption of meat and replacing our grain-fed meats with grass-fed ruminants. But I think, ultimately, we’d do well by replacing meat altogether with something less harmful.”

Mark Hawthorne is a contributing writer at Satya.




Anyone Have a Beef with in vitro Meat?


Gene Bauston, Farm Sanctuary: “From an ethical standpoint, it does cause less suffering than raising and slaughtering animals.”

Camilla Fox, Animal Protection Institute: “My gut reaction is we shouldn’t be promoting or supporting a meat-based diet, regardless of where the meat comes from. But, it’s an interesting question that raises a whole host of ethical, economic and health issues.”

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA: “Cloned meat from culture obviously beats the socks off meat from factory farmed and slaughtered animals. I once explored making real ‘Newkirk nuggets’ from flesh from my arm to make the point that flesh addiction is revolting, and if I am healthier, as I am, than the average animal used for meat, and giving my flesh voluntarily, why is this revolting but eating flesh from a probably gut-infected, tumor-laden chicken or cow is not?”

Jack Norris, Vegan Outreach: “You might be surprised to hear a dietitian say this, but I hope in vitro meat will be similar, nutritionally, to meat. People like the taste and feeling of fullness that meat provides. We need it to be meat, but without the suffering. If we, as animal advocates, promote in vitro meat and succeed in replacing all processed meats with it, the amount of animals prevented from suffering should more than make up for any impression we might give to people that meat is good. In vitro meat is probably inevitable, unless something catastrophic occurs that will prevent technological advances.”

Paul Shapiro, HSUS: “While it would still most likely be more efficient to eat more traditional meat substitutes than cultured meat products from a bioreactor, it would be far more efficient—and humane—to eat in vitro meat than sentient animals. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that in vitro meat will succeed and reduce an immense amount of misery.”

Kim Sturla, Animal Place: “Growing meat would mean that industries dependent on farmed animal production would basically be forced out of business. Nobody is going to allow that to happen to factory farms, slaughterhouses, feed growers and drug companies [more than half the nation’s antibiotics are fed to farmed animals]. There is a reason the government is not subsidizing in vitro meat research like they subsidize tobacco or cattle grazing on public lands. To me this is the biggest issue on the table.”


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