Though he certainly isn’t the first of his kind, Medical University of South Carolina researcher Vladimir Mironov is making strides towards a clean and efficient method for growing meat in the laboratory. Moreover, this article in Reuters argues that the tissues he generates have moved beyond the questionable “shmeat” featured on the Colbert Report in 2009, and are now instead in the realm of the downright tasty.
Dr. Mironov argues that, “it will be functional, natural, designed food.” (I’m not sure how a designed food is a natural food, precisely, but more on that later.) “How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.”
At first I was excited. Wooo, technology! But then I drew back. Thinking about farmed cow tissue gave me pause for more reasons than I originally thought possible. One was that I worried about the nature of what I’d be eating: Is this truly healthy? Am I really nurturing myself when I eat this? My guess at the answer, however, is: probably. My initial concern was warranted but likely disproportionate to the true nature of the matter. Tissue engineers know their stuff. If they can make a new hip, attach old limbs, and even, today, seriously endeavor to grow a woolly mammoth from ancient DNA, they can probably make properly meaty meat. On the other hand, the type of DNA they use to grow the meat, and the type of tissue they endeavor to make–for example, do they use a healthy or a grain fed cow for the model?–will certainly impact the product. Moreover, would there be a “meat” standard throughout the world, or would products vary from lab to lab and market to market? These are interesting questions, and actually have real world implications for our future health.
A second reason for my reservation was the subconscious association I made between meat tissue and human tissue. When I think about tissue labs, I think about Michael Bay’s film The Island, and I flinch a bit. If we can make meat in the laboratory, whose to say we can’t make organisms? As a matter of fact, we can. Clones are a reality, and it’s a reality that makes our skin itch. Growing meat evokes heavy existential questions. What does it mean to be alive? To be human? To have agency? A soul?
Moreover, this is not just an issue of the future, but of the present. I should be rocked by the power of technology every day, but as I float along in the blogosphere or fly from Detroit to Taipei as easily (or more easily) than I walk to the newsstand in the mornings, I forget how removed we are from a “natural state.” I take keeping in touch with nature and my organic existence very seriously, but the truth is that I can sort of ignore it if I want to. Would eating grown meat be another push in that direction? Is the idea of an “organic existence” directly in conflict with eating animal tissue generated in a petri dish?
Cell biologist Nichols Genovese makes the relevant point that “there are a lot of products that we eat today that are considered natural that are produced in a similar manner…there’s yogurt, which is cultured yeast. You have wine production and beer production. These were not produced in laboratories. Society has accepted these products.”
But cultured yeast is still yeast. Genovese’s point, while not ridiculous, doesn’t really hold. Culturing yeast is more equivalent to a feed lot than a petri dish. Each is a place where nutrients are available for organisms to grow. Moreover, a yeast cell doesn’t have agency, doesn’t graze through green pastures, doesn’t raise young, and isn’t something I necessarily treat with sacred respect. I’m not 100 percent sure of the statement I’m about to make, but I think my biggest problem with the lab meat is this: I feel a fair bit spiritual about what I eat. I like to feel as though I am integrating the Earth into my body when I eat vegetables, and the fabric of the animal kingdom into my soul when I eat meat. I live in profound gratefulness for the bounty of the Earth, and laboratories remove that glory. This would explain why I feel okay about genetically modified foods. They are the product of both the Earth and of man’s genius, and that’s pretty cool. Laboratory meat, while hugely complicated and practical, offers no such transcendence.
I think that, in the end, I feel about laboratory meat the same way I do about lots of society: resigned acceptance. This is something that could be really good for the environment and for global health (however, I have to wonder: how sustainable is the production process?), and it’s a sacrifice I am definitely willing to make. A wee bit part of my soul cries at the loss, but it’s a small part, and this is so far away in the future anyway that I cannot predict with any degree of certainty how the whole deal with play out. I have this faith in humanity… Remember in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when everyone was predicting we’d be living in silver jumpsuits on concrete high rises and perpetually hardwired into computers or some other crazy technology? It’s never happened, and it’s never going to happen. As much as we enjoy playing with the bounds of technology, we have an innate humanity that we will never relinquish. No one makes silver jumpsuits because no one wants to wear them. Similarly, if people are so horrified by the though of laboratory meat, we may in fact find a way to live sustainably and naturally after all.Tweet