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?
(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!)