Laboratory-grown meat raises questions
By Ken Root
The introduction of hamburger that didn’t come directly from a beef animal was a carefully launched media event. There was science mixed with celebrity but also an underlying animal welfare message. It all may come down to cost and taste but I think this beef product is being positioned as a moral alternative to traditional animal agriculture.
I’m a 64-year-old cynic. I was accused of being “biased against both sides” in my talk show days so you should expect me to be suspect of a glitzy media campaign to serve a $300,000 hamburger. Still, I think there is credit due to the science and technology of taking muscle stem cells from a bovine and causing them to replicate to the point that a portion of meat is harvestable. There is also a hopeful message by the underwriters and supporters that this could be a way to feed more people a higher quality diet in the future.
What I found suspect was the implication that our current method of raising and harvesting animals was “cruelty” and this process would stop that type of behavior. I have walked the pastures, feedlots, packing plants and meat cases of supermarkets and butcher shops and I don’t find this to be a business that has animal cruelty as a component. I would admit that the work is hard and the profits sometimes disappointing but the care and respect for the animal is humane and responsible. The end product, be it beef, pork or poultry, is sustaining and satisfying and justifies the means by which we produce it.
The scientists and spokespersons in a very highly produced video gave a view point that is elitist and somewhat inaccurate. The spokespersons imply that the bovine species is inefficient and gives off greenhouse gasses, therefore cutting their numbers would be a good thing for the world. The greatest fallacy of the video was that it did not show a cow eating grass. The ruminant animal is designed to feed on cellulose that other types of animals cannot digest. Their entire life cycle can be accomplished without one kernel of corn and the meat would be nutritious to the consumer. Showing Jersey calves densely packed into a feedlot is not a necessity to raising beef for the marketplace. Showing animals grazing in Kansas and the western states would have been more realistic.
An appearance by Ken Cook, founder of the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.com) convinced me that the project is not about science, but has other agendas. Cook made his mark by revealing the payments made to farmers and ranchers to further an agenda of conservation but that has now turned to additional causes that seem to mesh with the animal rights movement.
It was of interest that the scientist who led the project, Dr. Mark Post, a vascular physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, made the case that “Humans Love Meat” and that it is a means to gain substantial nutrition from a small quantity of muscle meat. That validates the reality that humans are omnivorous and eating meat is a natural behavior. Vegetarianism, therefore, is a choice that may be made by the individual but the human species loves meat for both nutritional and psychological reasons.
What I think we are seeing, based on the initial reaction from interested parties, is a shift in the animal rights agenda from moving people away from meat consumption to moving the industry away from traditional meat production. The process for expanding a few muscle cells into ten tons of meat is likely to take ten years to perfect but, if it shows promise, then this may be the intermediary step that animal activists may take.
We have tried before to consume products that taste like meat. Perhaps you remember the “Soy Meat” that appeared in the 1980s. It was all vegetable and shaped and textured to look and chew like meat. It did not catch on, as consumers rejected it. We did make the transition from butter to a vegetable product that now dominates our refrigerators. Oleomargarine of the 1950s was nasty stuff but people couldn’t afford butter so it was the next best thing. Over the years, it was accepted by consumers because the texture and flavor became much better and it was less expensive. Meat could follow the same process over the course of a generation.
I commend scientists for coming up with new concepts and attempting to validate them in the marketplace. I don’t like to see an agenda slipped into a new technology although it seems to be human nature to do so. Because of the wealth of our nation, and now our world, we are evolving toward a higher standard of living. The basics of food, clothing and shelter are the first that we wish to improve as more income is attained. As we head into the future the old statement of “Science Fiction Today- Science Fact Tomorrow” will still hold true. I just hope freedom of choice remains intact, as well.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.