The recent laboratory development of an in-vitro beef burger created from stem cells is causing quite a buzz amongst consumers. Most people's first reaction is one of disgust and trepidation. And then the many questions: how can I eat meat that was grown in a lab made possible only by human engineering? Will the "fake" burger have the same nutritional benefits as a real one carved from the back or belly of a cow? What about vegetarians who don't eat meat because they disapprove of animal slaughter? Can they eat an in-vitro burger guilt-free? And what about the taste?
Now, I can't claim to have tasted this lab burger, not least because it costs tens of thousands of dollars at this stage in its development. So I'm assuming most you reading this haven't tasted it either. But you will probably have an opinion on the matter. My hunch is it won't be long before in-vitro meat starts becoming available in specialist shops and eventually, in restaurants and super-markets too. And it won't stop at beef. Chicken and seafood won't be far behind. And I'm sure the scientists behind these developments will continually try to improve the flavour so you won't even taste the difference. Within a generation we could all be eating more engineered meat than actual meat.
So does it really matter whether your burger is grown in a lab or comes from a cow on a farm? I think it does. As the most advanced form of life on Earth, humans have a responsibility as caretakers of the planet and all the life it supports.
But go to a factory farm and you may lose your faith in humanity. Cows, chickens and pigs destined for our plate are treated as meat while they are still alive. Most animals are packed so tightly into their enclosures they have little or no room to move. Urinating and defecating on each other, they can spend days standing on their feet. It's a high stress environment for animals that may well know their fate. Many are slaughtered in front of each other. To use an analogy from Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, the way we treat factory farm animals is akin to genocide. In other words, mass meat producers treat animals as if they don't feel pain or discomfort or fear death.
Besides the way we treat our slaughter animals, there's the side-effects of factory farming on our planet. The UN says the meat industry contributes on a massive scale to climate change, air pollution, land degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline. Raising animals destined for the dinner table takes up around 70%of all agricultural land. The meat industry contributes about 18% of global greenhouse gas emmissions and this is set to rise as more consumers in the developing world acquire a taste for meat as incomes and living standards rise. Annual meat production is expected to increase to 376 million tonnes by 2030.
So could cultured meat grown in a laboratory be the answer? Hanna Tuomisto, who conducted the study into the new test-tube meat at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, thinks so. She found that growing meats in-vitro would use 35% to 60% less energy, emit 80% to 95% less greenhouse gas and use around 98% less land than conventionally produced animal meat.
If you think about the millions of mouths we need to feed over the coming century, in-vitro meat seems like a no-brainer. Rather than breeding and raising more animals only to have them killed, why not grow the meat in a clean environment where there's no bloodshed involved and no senseless pain inflicted on an innocent creature? Surely, preventing the slaughter of millions of animals far outweighs satisfying our desire for an authentic beef burger if we can find a reasonable alternative. Not to mention the enormous sigh of relief our planet would take if we stop farming animals for slaughter.
Test-tube meat is still about 20 years away from our dinner tables. But accepting it as a viable food source will take time. We need to change our perspective and rethink our relationship to food, animals and the planet as a whole.
So, my verdict is test-tube meat: yay.