Sunday, January 22, 2012

Frankenmeat

Old friend Bruce Cochrane posted this article from The Guardian about lab-grown meat and was interested in my thoughts about it.  In summary, the article suggests that lab-grown meat could address food shortages and improve the environment by reducing the environmental impact of farm-raised meat.
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I've been following the whole lab-grown meat phenomena with some interest, largely because it is so incredibly weird and funny in an Island of Dr. Moreau sort of scenario.  In many ways, it seems like bad 1960's science fiction turned real.  My guess is that the meat produced is as like meat as Tang is like orange juice.  The chemicals might be right, but the real thing is far superior.

The arguments that it will improve the lives of others and limit environmental impact is a bit of a red herring.  As we have seen with many scientific modifications of crops, such as bovine growth hormones and genetically modified crops, there are unforeseen consequences.  Plus, I wonder about the chemistry behind the production of the frankenmeat.  What are the chemicals used to produce the product?  Where do they come from?  Are they energy efficient or environmentally neutral?  Plus, what about the waste issues associated with production?  In addition, we are making incredible strides to improve food sustainability around the world--I am not sure that we really need to go down this path to feed the world.  The article posits that there are energy and water efficiencies associated with this meat production, but I wonder.  

Plus, what are the costs of production?  Will lab-grown meat be expensive?  I would imagine it would be rather pricey, at least at the outset.  Thus, I doubt that lab-grown meat is the answer to world hunger.  But if it will be produced inexpensively, what will happen to farmers? Do they start harvesting stem cells to grow meat in barns outfitted with flesh stretchers instead of stalls?  Does meat production become more of a biotech industry?  

I have read that some are concerned about the ethics of creating this meat.  Is it a new life form?  Should we create flesh without consciousness?  Not being a philosopher, I do not have any strong opinions on this issue.  But, one positive aspect of this development could be the reduction of butchered animals.  But, I suspect that the lab-grown meat will add to food production, not diminish existing production.  So, I am not particularly comfortable with statements in the article about the environmental benefits.

I also wonder about the health consequences of eating lab-grown meat.  There are many micronutrients  that we get from our natural foods that are probably not present in the lab-grown meat in the same way.  I wish that the big science and agricultural dollars were spent on improving and developing small farms in tune with local environments near population centers.

So, I remain unconvinced as to the benefit of lab-grown meat to the environment and to human health.  But, I predict that it will be on our grocery shelves within 5 years and that it will be marketed as a green product.  We could do so much better by developing environmentally-sound small diversified farms.

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