August 2013: The future of meat appears in London. At least, that’s how the media event I’m watching online has been billed. A hamburger made of bovine muscle cells grown in vitro is unveiled, then served to a panel of tasters while a studio audience of journalists watches. A promotional film describes the various ills that “cultured meat” promises to solve, ills caused by eating animals at industrial scale. Industrial animal agriculture possibly produces 14 to 18 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. The byproducts of animal agriculture can pollute waterways and soil. Livestock, especially bovine livestock, is inefficient at turning plant foods into protein. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a potential source of zoonotic diseases; furthermore, subtherapeutic dosing with antibiotics to speed animals’ growth builds antibiotic resistance in pathogens that can grow in feedlots.11xOn the history of treating farm animals with antibiotics to encourage growth, see Orville Schell, Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones, and the Pharmaceutical Farm (New York, NY: Vintage, 1978), and Maryn McKenna, Big Chicken: The Improbable Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Farming and Changed the Way the World Eats (Washington, DC: National Geographic Books, 2017). Billions of animals suffer in our meat production infrastructure, and the moral weight of that suffering depends on whom you ask, and on his or her philosophical views about animals. Today’s event conveys the implicit promise that “cultured meat” may solve all these problems. The short promotional film concludes with the words “be part of the solution.”
A second promotional film describes how the burger was made: The process started with a biopsy of cow muscle cells, followed by careful stimulation of a stem cell–driven, natural process of muscle repair, as cells were fed with growth media under carefully calibrated laboratory conditions. Gradually, what functions as a healing process in vivo (i.e., in living animals) becomes a meat production process, in vitro. Thus, the potential of stem cells to create new tissue becomes the biological grounds for a promise about the future of protein.
But this is only a test—or, only a taste. In vitro techniques cannot yet perfectly reproduce in vivo animal muscle and fat, and thus cannot perfectly reproduce what consumers recognize as meat. Cultured meat has yet to become delicious. Nor is the technology scalable. The techniques and materials are still too expensive. The burger taste-tested in London took months of lab time to make, and the entire project (materials, technician salaries, etc.) cost more than $300,000 US. If the holy grail of cultured meat research is to develop a product that can replace “cheap meat,” that is, the kind of meat that is produced at industrial scale and sold at fast-food restaurants, then the goal seems years or decades away.
If we succeed in growing meat—meat that never had parents, meat that was never part of a complete animal body—we will do more than change human subsistence strategies forever. We will also transform our relationship with animal bodies, beginning at the level of the cell. Mark Post, the Dutch medical researcher who created the burger with the help of a team of scientists and technicians, seems hopeful and confident. He laughs good-naturedly with the journalists when they articulate their doubts. Of course, he acknowledges, it would be easier if everyone just became a vegetarian, but such a mass shift in human behavior doesn’t seem likely.