Jul 09 2005

Making meat

Growing meat in a vat has long been a staple of Science Fiction. [Pun intended.] And the idea really isn’t all that crazy. After all, it’s just an extension of existing tissue culturing technology.

Some scientists are working on ways to grow meat in commercial quantities. (More here.) And they’re coming pretty damn close to pulling it off. There are all kinds of good things about vat grown meat which makes the idea attractive. For example:

  • Less cows farting means reduced global warming.
  • Better quality control. (You won’t have to worry about ‘mad vat’ disease.)
  • No bones. No gristle. None of those yucky arteries. No ‘meat byproducts’ because it’s all ‘meat product’. Hell, you could even control the amounts of cholesterol and fatty acids to some extent.
  • It might actually be cheaper than meat from the hoof because it requires less land, processing and inspection.

I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of vat-grown meat for some time and, as a result, I’ve come up with a series of thought experiments which are fun to throw out at parties. (Mind you, they have to be the right kind of parties. Don’t try these at a church social.)

Is vat grown meat OK for vegetarians? This wouldn’t apply to people who are vegetarians for (real or imagined) health reasons, but what about people who won’t eat meat because of philosophical problems with killing animals? No animal is harmed here, other than the one time they take a sample for the vat, and that’s just a needle poke. So this stuff is pretty much as guilt-free as you can get.

Is it OK to eat vat grown meat from endangered species? What if we used cultures from endangered, and even extinct, species? Would it be OK to have a whale steak? Siberian tiger on a stick? Spotted owl nuggets? It wouldn’t reduce the numbers of endangered animals in the wild a single bit. Heck, it might even increase them in those cases where the animal is endangered precisely because it tastes good. So you could have that bowl of panda stew in good conscience!

Is it cannibalism to eat vat-grown human meat? Once again, no-one is harmed. Heck, the tissue donor could even be the one serving it to you! Imagine tony dinner parties where the main course is a roast of the host. Or what about restaurants which specialized in long pork? For example, suppose I buy a couple of vats and set one up. I call it “Jack’s” and that is what you get. After taking some samples from appropriate parts of myself and putting the vats in operation I open up with a menu that includes ‘Jack Burgers’, ‘JackBQ Sandwiches’, ‘Burning Jack Chili’ and so on. In this scenario I’m the one behind the counter. I want you to eat me! So what’s wrong with that? Even if it is cannibalism, isn’t it pretty much guilt-free cannibalism?

Suppose you grew someone’s meat culture without their permission? Do people own tissue cultures taken from them to the extent that they can decide who, if anyone, can eat them? What if I sold my restaurant to some people who changed the name to “Sweeney Todd’s”, would the buyers also need to license the meat cultures from me? What if they extended the menu with other, non-Jack, meat; would they need to license any other cultures they used? What about the case of a nasty divorce where the husband kept a culture of his wife’s meat and continued to chow down on his ex every night out of spite?

How about celebrity meats? What if the restaurant provided a line of licensed celebrity menu items? Think Tom Hanks ham sandwiches. Liza Minelli spaghetti. Jamaica-jerked Jim Carey. Katie Holmes kabobs. Frank Oz franks. Kevin Bacon bacon. Would you go? What would you order? Would you be able to tell if the management is cheating and your Ozzy Osborne oriental salad is actually Stu the dishwasher?

Mmmmm. Meat!

(Meta: Crap. You really have to move fast on the Net if you want to own a meme! I found the link which prompted this post nearly a week ago and wrote the following rant up several days later, intending to blog it on Monday, when my logs show I have the most readers. Then those blog-bullies BoingBoing and Metafilter upstaged me today with nearly content-free posts and the story gets widely linked. So now my hand is forced and I must blog this right away. Curse them! Curse them all!)


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  1. jacqueline1776

    Jim Kling wrote an article on this subject (the science aspect) several years ago.

    I used to amuse myself by asking vegetarians about whether it was OK to eat meat grown in vats. Most couldn’t come up with an answer. I concluded that most vegetarians are vegetarians because it’s trendy or it’s a way to get attention and special treatment and not for any thought-out reasons.

    1. Anonymous

      You may be a tad misinformed…

      “Most” vegetarians are veg because we have morals. It’s _not_ trendy; attention attracted tends to be negative, and it can be exhausting trying not to be a pain when ordering food. The upside: healthier and cheaper meals, built-in encouragement to try the delicious foods eaten by people in less dead-animal-centric parts of the world, not having to wash hands carefully after handling uncooked food, and, of course, at number one, knowing you’re not a murderer.

      Pain is pain, no matter who experiences it, and it doesn’t take human-caliber abstract thinking skills to be able to suffer. In thinking that most vegetarians don’t feel this way, you betray that _you_ are the one with the ill-thought-out positions.

      And to answer your question, yes, I would eat vat-grown meat provided that I was sure it in no way caused the suffering and death of anything with a nervous system, and that its environmental impact wasn’t worse than the equivalent veggie food.

      1. jacqueline1776

        Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

        Sorry, that’s just not representative of most of the vegetarians I’ve met — or at least the ones that make a point of letting everyone know that they’re vegetarian. I suppose the ones who aren’t doing it to be attention-getting drama queens probably don’t make a big deal about making their vegetarianism known, and thus I wouldn’t know that they were vegetarians.

        Vegetarianism is *not* “healthier”. It frequently results in a lot of nutritional deficiencies, especially iron. If I don’t eat enough red meat and/or shellfish I become very ill from anemia.

        1. Anonymous

          Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

          Vegetarianism is *not* “healthier”. It frequently results in a lot of nutritional deficiencies, especially iron. If I don’t eat enough red meat and/or shellfish I become very ill from anemia.

          A vegetarian diet may make *you* anemic, no matter how much spinich you eat, but that’s no reason to assume that everyone has the same problem as you. Vegetarianism actually makes some people feel healthier, and who cares if that’s a placebo effect? It certainly doesn’t cause anyone else harm. People can eat unhealthily without being veggies – may I point out the health risks associated with shellfish? Either way, we all need to read labels, put some research and effort into planning our diets, and think for ourselves – is my completely inexpert opinion ; )

          I am, incidentally, an omnivore who also thinks that *some* vegetarians may swear off meat without thinking it through because being a veggie is trendy in some places – but that not all vegetarians are being trendy.

          To get back on topic, I’m definitely rejoicing at the thought of vat grown meat, without all the icky bits. But I do know some people who seem to like gnawing the gristly, fatty stuff off the bones, and sucking out the marrow. We could end up with a die-hard traditionalist butcher faction … I’m not sure if I’d go in for long pork, though, since the couple of times I’ve had it, I felt … weird. Not physically sick or anything, but some taboos really stick (non-practicing Jew, except I don’t eat pork, and sometimes avoiding that is enough of a hassle I can’t imagine sticking to plant-food).

          Another consideration is whether vat meat would be considered kosher, halal, etc.


        2. jacqueline1776

          Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

          I was responding to the blanket claim that vegetarianism is healthier.

          FYI, spinach is a non-heme source of iron, which is far less (as I recall my nurtritionist said 1/20th) absorbable than heme (meat) sources of iron.

        3. Anonymous

          Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

          Q: Is being a vegetarian or vegan healthy?
          A: In its 2003 position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association reported that vegan and vegetarian diets “are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.” According to the ADA, “vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.” Vegans benefit as well — cow’s milk contains significant amounts of saturated fat, while eggs contain large amounts of cholesterol, making regular use of them contributors to cardiovascular disease.

        4. jacqueline1776

          Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

          If it’s so healthy then why do they have to take supplements???

          If your diet makes you sick unless you take pills, it’s not a healthy diet.

        5. Anonymous

          Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

          I’d rather pop a B-12 pill a day than support factory farming. It’s very inhumane.

      2. Anonymous

        Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

        I don’t think they are being trendy but I do get amused when my vegetarian friends spend so much time trying to make their food taste like meat. If it is immoral to eat meat, why would you want to simulate it?

      3. Anonymous

        Re: You may be a tad misinformed…

        Wow, way to be holier than thou. Particularly, and I quote, ‘”Most” vegetarians are veg because we have morals’ and ‘knowing you’re not a murderer.’ You may consider me a murderer for eating schnitzel of my own free will and liking it, but I don’t. I’ve got morals, but they haven’t lead me to swear off meat.

        Also, ‘built-in encouragement to try the delicious foods eaten by people in less dead-animal-centric parts of the world’, meaning poverty-stricken areas where much of the meat that does get eaten is from a poached endangered animal because the locals can’t afford to keep chickens? Or places where lots of Hindus live? Or what?

        A vegetarian diet certainly has its advantages (and disadvantages) and obviously makes some moral and/or medical sense for some people, but not for everyone. You are, of course, entitled not only to your own way of doing things, but your own opinion about how other people do things. Nevertheless, you certainly didn’t provide positive press for vegetarians by insulting people who choose to eat meat.

        Jessy, as omnivorous as ever and hoping her position is suffiently well-thought out for Anon

  2. ultranurd

    I’m a meat-eater now, but I’d probably move to vat meat if it were available, becomes it seems like it would be more economical and more environmentally friendly.

    I might give vat-grown endangered meats a shot, but I expect they might taste kind of weird.

    Not sure about vat-grown human. I don’t think I’d be comfortable eating it, but I don’t think I’d object to someone else setting up a restaurant and others frequenting that establishment.

    1. Anonymous

      gourmet problem

      I would have to wonder whether having vat-grown human meat available would encourage a “gourmet” interest in “the real thing”. The bias against cannibalism doesn’t seem like a good thing to weaken.

      1. Jack William Bell

        Re: gourmet problem

        Ever read Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan?

  3. kate_schaefer

    Jack, have you read Ruth L. Ozick’s “My Year of Meats”? It’s a wildly funny, dark novel about a publicity manager trying to promote meat in different ways for a year, and getting way too close to the production of meat for comfort. I note that you’ve already had a fair amount of anonymous commenting about the relative healthful effects of eating meat/not eating meat. I am surprised at how little nuance or knowledge of research concerning meat production or current vegetarian practice is expressed by the meat-eating Anonymous in the thread. I eat meat; I’m careful about what goes into most of the meat I eat. I eat balanced vegetarian meals as well, and I’m even more careful about what goes into the vegetables that I eat, because I eat a lot more vegetables than meat.

  4. jacqueline1776

    Congrats on getting linked by Marginal Revolution!!!


    1. Jack William Bell

      Ya, the hits just keep coming. This post has been multiply linked now, so my logs are still getting crazy numbers. However the logs are also telling me that most people don’t click through to ‘New Stuff’, much less ‘Old Stuff’, so I’m not gaining a large number of new, steady readers.

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