While reading this weeks issue of New Scientist (21 Dec 2002), I came across an article called ‘Raising the Steaks’. This immediately caught my eye because it was about meat without victims and I am a vegetarian.
The article starts with a brief description of Oran Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben Ary’s artwork ‘Disembodied Cuisine’. These three conceptual artists, working in France have been growing frog muscle cells in a lab. They will then, as their piece, eat the artificial frog steak while watched by a group of frogs.
This has ramifications outside the art world, of course. NASA has been funding research into the growth of meat in the labs. The thought is that current space food is not particularly appetising and many astronauts are coming back a little undernourished. If the astronauts could grow meat in space then this would make meal times more interesting and provide essential nutrition for them.
It is more efficient, though, to grow plants, says Thomas Dreschel from NASA giving praise for a vegetarian diet and saying that any vitamin deficiencies could be dealt with using pills. Going on to add that animal protein is more balanced than plant protein. Using genetic modification, we could produce plants that expressed animal protein and bypass this problem but this has major ethical issues. Or does it? I personally can’t see that GM foods have any more ethical problems than slaughtering animals.
But what of a vegetarian opinion of growing meat in labs? Obviously I cannot speak for everyone because many people have different reasons for being vegetarian. Ethically speaking, I don’t have a problem with growing cells to use for meat. Being a scientist myself, I understand how the process works in theory and even grow cells myself, albeit of E. coli. Virologists have been using cultured tissue from, commonly, baby hamster kidney cells. Although a hamster does need to die for this process, it is only one and much preferable to the other option of using a live hamster and induce a virus.
The idea of using a biopsy to gain the starter cells for growth into a steak requires no farming and no slaughtering of animals so this means that it should be ethically viable. The process is thus: - Harvest chicken myoblast (partially differentiated) cells and encourage them to grow onto beads of edible collagen or chitosan. Incubate at 37 degrees Celsius with oxygen and growth mixture (mushroom in origin). Collect the meat and shape as desired, cook and eat. Chicken nuggets that have required no chickens to die.
Another advantage to growing meat is that it is actually more economical than farming. This, though, also means that companies like McDonald's are interested in this way of production. I do not feel though that this is an animal welfare issue for them though.
Truly victimless? Well it could be, yes. In theory you could create a steak from your own cells eliminating animals from the process altogether. This does seem to be a truly ethical way of eating meat.
Even though I think this is a great idea (anything that negates killing animals must be) I don’t think I would eat it. Maybe I would try it. I became a vegetarian because I am against the farming of animals i.e. just breeding them to kill them. Since then, I have felt that I just don’t want to eat meat and in fact have never wanted meat. I don’t eat ‘faux-bacon’ rashers because I don’t want to eat something that tastes like bacon. Lab meat is still meat and I don’t think I would want to eat it. I wouldn’t want to eat meat whether it was victimless or had a victim.
Another thought against eating this lab-meat is that even though no animal has died to produce this steak the cell still contains all the DNA required to make the animal as a whole. There are still genes in there which say ‘brain’,‘lungs’ etc and there is still ‘animal’ there.