In vitro meat offers interesting solution to animal rights debate

With the mounting presence of organizations like PETA and proliferation of books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, the cruelties of animal agriculture have been gradually shepherded into the collective mind of the American public – a public that loves its meat.

Though the resulting exploitation from these practices is no longer the fringe issue that it was a decade or two ago, Americans have largely ignored the barbarity of factory farming.

While it’s difficult to fix a broken system – especially one so deeply-rooted in the economics and culture of our country – it is possible to find alternatives. In February, scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands finally did just that.

Lab-grown meat, more affectionately known as “schmeat,” is becoming the ever-present answer to the call for a more sustainable and “kinder” meat source. While it seems like something out of a science fiction novel, it’s a solution that carnivores and vegetarians alike can get behind. As someone who’s struggled with the morals of eating our winged, finned and four-legged friends for a while, it’s also a solution – albeit an unconventional one – that I can also support.

Schmeat isn’t the “fake meat” that you’d eat in the vegetable protein products that often don’t taste like the real thing. It’s real animal flesh, except it was never part of a living animal.

The process goes as follows: Tissues are taken from an animal and stem cells are extracted from the tissue. Then, the stem cells are grown in a lab and the new muscle fibers can eventually be developed into a filet mignon or chicken cutlet – whatever the consumer’s meat-loving little heart desires.

According to the BBC, the scientists have succeeded in growing muscle about 2 centimeters long and hope to produce the first lab-grown hamburger by the end of 2012. At a conference in Vancouver on Feb. 18, Mark Post of Maastricht said that come October, he and his team are planning to “make a product that looks, feels and hopefully tastes like meat.”

The elimination of animal cruelty associated with factory farming and the up-to-60 percent reduction of the environmental footprint of meat production are the major positives of this development. The negatives, however, are also tangible.

According to Post, the meat will initially taste “bland,” and a multitude of ingredients – including artificially-grown blood, fat and even omega-3s – will have to be added to the flesh, which was developed from stem cells extracted from “fetal calf serum.” Just makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

The idea of lab-grown meat also butchers the fantasy most of us have cooked up about our meat’s origins. We imagine a farmer that’s raised his cows from birth, only humanely slaughtering them after they’ve lived a long life. This is obviously not the reality of the current system nor the reality should lab-grown meat become a widespread practice.

Though Post said that price will eventually decrease once the meat is marketable, the first lab-grown burger will cost around $345,000 to produce – certainly not pocket-change for the average consumer.

According to PETA’s website, the organization is offering $1 million to anyone who can “produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh” by the end of June. Coming from the organization that’s sent maggot-infested intestines to Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour’s office, that certainly sounds like an enthusiastic endorsement to me.

All things considered, lab-grown meat is a solution that could ultimately end the cruelties of factory farming over the next several generations. Let’s just hope these scientists aren’t cowed by their critics and continue their valuable work.

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