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In Meat-ro: The Curious Case of Cruelty Free Meat

28/11/2014 14:59 GMT | Updated 27/01/2015 10:59 GMT

In August 2013 Scientists from Maastricht University led by Dr. Mark Post unveiled their £215,000 lab-grown burger made by culturing muscle tissue in a liquid medium on a large scale, resulting in the growth of billions of cells to make one burger 'in vitro'.

Post believes that lab-grown meat, or 'tube steak', has the potential to curb the harmful environmental effect of the increasing worldwide demand for low cost meat. The global population is increasing exponentially, and after breaking the seven billion barrier in 2012 demand for meat is increasing. In comparison with traditionally farmed beef lab grown beef requires no food input, less energy, and an independent study found that lab grown cultures of meat results in the emission of 96% less greenhouse gases.

According to recent sociologist of science Robert M Chiles our outlook and expectation of the future guides us on how to mobilize political and economic resources. Whilst many believe that in vitro meat is not viable, Chiles proposes that its viability is reliant on public opinion "if they come, we will build it" he concludes. That is, if financial, public, and political support is forthcoming, developers of in vitro meat believe that it can become a reality.

The past publicity of food technology is important, Chiles proposes that the ability of in vitro meat to distance itself from other food technologies that have suffered lasting bad publicity is the key to its success and development. Rayner's work on the novelty trap (as explained in a previous blog post) supports this idea. Chiles also references Busch, a sociologist of science who believes that investment in the technology has been slow due to the disappointment "burned by the disappointment of biotech". Chiles also believes that the extravagant claims made by GM crops and subsequent failure to meet them has tarnished the future of food technologies. Then again, as the novelty effect shows, positive projections are a standard in emerging technology to attract investment and support. So what are the promises being made by in vitro meat?

Chiles proposes that the ideological justifications for in vitro meat may outweigh the disappointment of previous food technologies, but at present in vitro meat is costly. In vitro meat is offered as a 'Promethean response' to overcrowding and the ever increasing global demand for meat. In Greek mythology Prometheans had unlimited confidence in the ability of humans and their technologies to overcome problems. In this way we now rely on the promise of technology to help curb the environmental impact of the industrial revolution and previous technologies.

In vitro meat is still in the fledgling stages of development, and much like nanotechnology and the T.H.O.N.G protest group there is little for skeptics to protest against just yet. By presenting the burger, developers hope to increase funding and support, but with that comes speculative ethical discussions about the future potential of a technology that is in its infancy that could shape public opinion for years to come.

Unlike many other emerging technologies, such as GM crops, in vitro meat has an interesting ethical justification for animal welfare campaigners who by-and-large applaud the project as an alternative to the traditional meat industry. In a statement, animal welfare campaigners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) were supportive, "[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer."

From an animal-welfare point of view, this should be seen as good news, but Post applauds vegetarians for their lack of meat consumption, saying "Quite frankly, vegetarians should remain vegetarians. That's even better for the environment and for the animals than the cultured beef alternative." Here Post highlights why the technology is being developed: not for reasons of animal welfare but to help combat the environmental issues that come with an exponentially increasing meat eating population.

Not everyone is heralding in vitro meat as the best way to combat the environmental impact of the burgeoning meat industry. Many have written off in vitro meat as a repulsive, unnatural form of fulfilling global demand for beef.

The idea of lab grown meat cultures as 'unnatural' is an interesting position, as even organic, free-range are often given medicines and antibiotics throughout their life. When the psychologist Paul Rozin studied the prevalent preference for natural foods in five European countries and the US, his team concluded that, for many people, natural is a concept for good that is like god says Rozin, "you don't argue with people about whether they believe in god or not and you don't try to tell people that natural isn't really good." This highlights that public understanding and opinion is key to the success of emerging technologies but that it is often hard to change long standing views.

Eating insects has also been proposed as an alternative to way of curbing the environmental effects of the meat industry. As many as two billion people worldwide eat insects, and bugs have a much smaller carbon footprint than livestock used for meat.

Few insects produce methane and the protein they provide would be an efficient and sustainable way to increase intake as the population grows. It could be argued that if we can overcome the fear of eating lab grown meat then we should instead get over our cultural aversions to eating edible insects.

Whether we'll be chowing down on franken-meat instead of suspicious doner kebab meat after a night out remains to be seen, but after the serving of the first lab grown burger in August 2013 (backed by Google founder Sergey Brynn), financial investment in lab grown meat is likely to increase markedly as it presents a potential alternative to the traditional meat industry that could tackle the increasing environmental issues caused by population growth.

It may seem like we're edging towards an Asimov dystopian future, but in vitro meat is only in its infancy and sure as hell beats Soylent Green.