Is Vat-Grown Meat Organic?

By Kyle Munkittrick | January 31, 2011 11:03 am

I am not very ethical about how I eat. I am not proud of this, but it is the truth. I am not vegan or vegetarian. In fact, I eat a lot of bacon and beef – I’d probably eat Soylent Green if given the option. I think the loco-vore movement is silly and think “organic” is a misnomer on nine out of ten things labeled as such. Most ethical foodies prefer “natural” and humane production methods. My question for all the ethical foodies out there: what are your thoughts on the very unnatural possibility of vat-grown meat?

Allow me to elaborate. Vat-grown meat is still a work in progress. But it is a real possibility. One of the scientists trying to make it a reality is Dr. Vladimir Mironov. He envisions giant factories called “carneries” that create meat the same way a brewery brews beer. One of his many goals is to be able to add taste and texture controlling features like fat and vascular systems to make his test-tube steaks as delicious as the real thing:

“It will be functional, natural, designed food,” Mironov said. “How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.”

Vat-grown meat is a godsend for those of us who are omnivores, but recognize the significant flaws with our current agricultural system. Many factory farms keep animals in inhumane conditions and the industry around animal meat is an incredibly wasteful and polluting. The current response to these conditions is to support organic, local and humane farming practices. The problem, of course, is that organic, local, and humane practices are economically inefficient, which makes the cost of ethical food prohibitive for most of us.

Yet I see vat-grown meat as presenting a significant conundrum to many supporters of the ethical/organic food movement: it’s too unnatural.

The crux of the matter is that most ethical foodies and environmentalists operate within a framework of the narrative of “the natural.” What that means is that the less technology and science a process uses to put food on your plate, the more natural, and therefore the more ethical it is. This anti-science attitude explains the irrational fear of genetically modified organisms as food. The problem, as I see it, is that the most artificial, technological and un-natural process – vat-grown meat – might be the only long-term large-scale solution available for the ethical dilemmas surrounding what we eat. And the ethical dilemmas of farming in general are significant:

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” [visiting scholar, Nicholas] Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

Additionally, cultured meat doesn’t have a nervous system, so you can’t hurt it. It doesn’t have an immune system, so you don’t have to inject it with antibiotics or growth hormones. The curious result is that artificially created meat will be more natural and humane than anything you’d find in the store today.  And, of course, there is always the future to think about, as Genovese points out:

“Further out, if we have interplanetary exploration, people will need to produce food in space and you can’t take a cow with you.

“We have to look to these ideas in order to progress. Otherwise, we stay static. I mean, 15 years ago who could have imagined the iPhone?”

For those of you who are vegans, organic foodies, and loco-vores, what are your thoughts on vat-grown meat?

Image of happy cow by wwarby via Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech

Comments (28)

  1. I am vegan for a lot of the ethical reasons you have briefly outlined above (more “use of facilities/land/energy” ideas than animal rights ideas). While this seems like a great solution to the dilemma of animal rights and meat consumption, in order to really evaluate this as a viable option for resource management, we need to see some reasonable estimates of the energy and resources that would be used in creating vat meat. Obviously it is not created in a vacuum, so what are the requirements? The process will certainly need some amount of liquid (water), nutrients, organic matter, electricity, etc. How does this compare to traditional farming methods? What sort of facilities will be needed? Will we have to build new facilities or can we utilize what we have? Will there be any unusable by-products? We need a hard look at these costs (not necessarily in terms of dollars, but in terms of resources) from petri dish to super market.

    Although I doubt I personally would jump on the vat-meat wagon, I think it is an interesting alternative to the agricultural status quo, and probably the only viable one we’ll have in any short order.

  2. lotuspixie

    I was vegan for 5 years, and I’m still vegetarian. And I only use dairy products and eggs from free-range, local farms.

    My reasons for doing so are all about the humane treatment of animals and support for local, sustainable agriculture. I also feel that the “natural” and “organic” obsessed folks in general have their priorities screwed up. And I completely agree with your statement that “organic” “is a misnomer on nine out of ten things labeled as such.” I have come to believe most firmly that Local is way more important that Organic.

    Therefore, I would probably have no problem at all eating vat-grown meat. Especially if it were made here in Madison, WI or elsewhere in Dane County–I could be supporting local biotech with my meat-buying habits!

    Now, whether I’d want to actually eat meat after more than a decade of not doing so is another issue entirely…

  3. Christian M

    You make some excellent points Kyle, it’s easy to see how vat-grown meat addresses both the suffering caused by conventional meat-production methods and the economic inefficiency of so-called “natural/organic” farming.

    I just have always wondered why so much effort is put into recreating the meat eating experience. If we are going to start producing edible muscle protein in vats, why insist on recreating all the other aspects of meat, like the vascular system and fat? Shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to liberate our dishes and our food from the relics of our society’s antiquated need to eat animals?

    If flavor is really what people are concerned with, I can see why fat is desirable, to an extent, but I would argue that we would benefit more from reducing the number of sources of fat in our diets, there is an obesity epidemic after all. Personally, I’ve had seitan dishes that taste way better than the chicken or beef counterparts they were supposed to be imitating and substituting for. When it comes to the topic of taste, I think Paul McCartney said it best when he guest-starred on the Simpsons: Even a kitchen table would taste great if you seasoned it properly.

    So if it’s not the flavor of meat that we are so attached to, is ti possible we just have a hard time letting go of the cultural traditions surrounding meat consumption? I don’t really see a vat-protein roast in the woods having as much of an allure as a lamb roast, or a wild-boar roast (vat meat doesn’t have a mouth, so where would you stick the apple garnish?).

  4. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Radioactive Vegan, Lotus Pixie, and Christian M: Thank you! These are exactly the questions I’m trying to address. Great comments.

    RV, in terms of resources, let’s presume that the process will indeed be more efficient energy wise. You can’t make a solar powered cow, but you certainly can use renewables to power a factory. Raw materials are the bigger question. I’m not entirely sure what the heck you need to make vat-grown meat. One definite advantage will be physical footprint. Even a huge factory won’t eat up the acreage of a farm. Furthermore, climate and weather will no longer be an issue. I have big concerns about waste as well. Overall environmental impact is a huge question mark at the moment, since everything is so speculative with vat-meat. I’m hopeful though.

    LP, I hadn’t even thought of ethical vegans switching back. Obviously meat itself is difficult for your GI to digest now, but perhaps vat-grown meat tech will enable some sort of super-vegan meat. That is, readily digestible but with proper nutrition normally acquired from meat. I fear I’m overly optimistic, but one can hope until limitations of the technology surface and we can see what might actually be possible.

    CM, one of my favorite restaurants here in NYC is vegan. I have a ton of friends who are veg/vegan, so I’ve learned to trust good vegan chef. I agree that something altogether better than meat might be possible. Perhaps that’s from where a lot of my curiosity comes. I also have friends who are loco-vores/ humane farming foodies. They love meat, just not factory farm derived meat. Their opposition is not to eating animals (that’s “natural”) but to the artifice of the farming methods.

  5. Zohar

    Wrong direction. Try a lo-tech solution instead. Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms. You can start with the TED video.

  6. Arun

    I am vegan for ethical reasons. I would eat vat-grown meat with the following caveats:
    1) I would have to very sure that I was eating vat-grown meat, not “normal” meat which has been relabeled.
    2) I would have to get over my innate disgust of meat.

    But I would not have any ethical problems with it. As for it being “unnatural”, being vegan is unnatural. (I think that primates have evolved to have meat in their diet, especially insect meat.) Living in heated homes is unnatural. Typing on a computer is unnatural. Whoop-de-doo.

  7. ChH

    “… people will need to produce food in space and you can’t take a cow with you.”
    This guy needs to watch Firefly.

    Seriously, though – Christian, it seems likely that our obesity epidemic is more due to refined sugars and inactivity than from eating fats.

    As for the culture surrounding the eating of meat … I’m an omnivore & enjoy eating many kinds of meat. I’d be perfectly happy switching to cultured meat if it tasted OK & the texture wasn’t too far off.

  8. I agree with ChH – I like eating meat, and would happily consume cultured meat if the quality was similar.

    I do wonder, though, if/when the day comes that we can produce a decent vat-grown steak, what happens to all the cows? It’s not like there are vast herds of wild Holsteins roaming the central plains – will they be reduced to exhibits in zoos, or face extinction?

    Please note that I’m not advocating feed lots as the better alternative. It’s just one of those things I wonder (usually when I’m sitting in rush-hour traffic) – we’ve produced dozens of breeds of cattle over centuries, and what happens to all that genetic variety when we don’t need them any more?

  9. I am not vegan, but I strive to only eat humanely raised meat (pastured chicken, free range beef etc), and I would certainly eat vat meat (so long as it tasted good). I think that most people would probably be willing to eat it so long as it wasn’t very expensive or tasted very different (just try getting a meat-eater to accept a tofurkey for Thanksgiving).

    My reasons for eating the way I do are for ethics, not some idea of what is natural. I completely agree with Arun – most of the things we do today aren’t “natural” but, on the other hand, hemlock is totally natural and I certainly don’t want to eat that!

    I really hope that we advance vat created meat in my lifetime so that we can not only reduce methane emissions, but also move away from ethically-dubious animal-raising methods.

  10. John Grigni

    This seems a very first world solution to a global problem. It’s all well and good for us to go on about ethics of meat consumption when we aren’t the ones starving. Can this provide famine resistant food sources to people who are more at risk

  11. Jody giardina

    I’ve been totally fascinated with the idea of vat meat for years. Many articles I’ve read indicate that the meat will derive from a source or seed meat – a small quantity of cow or pig muscle humanely biopsed, for instance. My fascination really comes from the idea that the seed meat could be anything – rare birds, endangered lizards, or even…people. The idea of eating a steak made from ME has a hugely bizarre appeal, and I wonder if there might not be a market for samples of human flesh which are particularly tasty. I’m kind of lazy, and I bet I would taste like salty veal…let the bidding begin!

  12. Thank you for bringing this issue and technology to light here at Discover.

    The technology is not new at all…I’ve been reading about it for a decade now. What is new is that the technology has improved considerably since its infancy and will improve to become a viable and profitable product (in a market forever wrought with real problems such as ethical accountability and food safety) of the not too distant future.

    I am convinced based on current socio-economic, environmental, and other factors that cultured meat will become not only very popular when the technology has fully matured and the products are brought to market, but also very necessary as the human population continues to exorbitantly swell, pushing well beyond the limits of current production systems, the ability to meet the desires of that bloating population. We no longer have to guess whether this happens, but instead we simply have to access the reality on the ground today and look objectively at the trends of human habit. Cultured meat in our supermarkets is enevitable (economically, it makes a lot of sense)…and I believe a huge step in the right direction for a society which talks the talk about moral concerns for non-humans and our ethical choices when it comes to what or whom we eat, but gives little more than lip service to these important values/decisions.

    Finally, for those who still believe that there’s such a thing as ‘happy meat’ I point your attention here: http://www.humanemyth.org

  13. Nikpo

    WOW.
    I guess I’m new to the vat-meat party but this sounds incredible… the ability to produce meat more efficiently and without killing animals sounds like sci fi (the soylent green reference… and the contributor who’d be interested in a “ME” steak present sort of disturbing scenarios), but I do think if it works, this presents the possibility to add protein to the diets of people starving around the world if it can be more cheaply produced than regular meat. (Like the rice that was bio-engineered to be able to grow in places it normally wouldn’t and resist disease).

    Now, the one concern I’d like to bring up has to do with the labeling and production process (wrought with potential hazards I’d assume like some other contributors mentioned). While I do try to eat lots of veggies and less meat if I can avoid it, I am not a vegetarian. This is in part because I have Celiac disease which limits what I can eat already (EVERYTHING has gluten/wheat in it. seriously. very hard to avoid) but I tend to stick to fish and veggies if I can. My issue with this vat-meat thing is what will have to be added to it to create “texture” and “taste”??? Gluten is already added to so many things in some form or another, and highly processed food has the real risk of being able to make many people sick because there’s potentially wheat/gluten on the manufacturing equipment used.

    Outside of my initial concern over the IDEA of vat-meat (ech… it just sounds kinda spam-like) the more serious concern is, how do we ensure it’s produced correctly, safely, not contaminated for the purpose of texture, and then of course my biggest concern – if you’re producing “petri-dish” meat… what the heck else are you growing in that petri-dish???? some sort of crazy new bacteria or virus that could possibly make whole batches disease ridden? How will you keep the production and packaging process sterile?

    Perhaps these concerns are without merit, (I’m clearly not a scientist) but there’s something about vat-meat that is off-putting unless one can be assured of the safety/cleanliness/ingredient labelling measures that go into the process…

  14. Your article has merit, in terms of explaining the concept of cruelty-free meat. However, I challenge some your premises and one of your basic assumptions:

    “What that means is that the less technology and science a process uses to put food on your plate, the more natural, and therefore the more ethical it is. This anti-science attitude explains the irrational fear of genetically modified organisms as food. The problem, as I see it, is that the most artificial, technological and un-natural process – vat-grown meat – might be the only long-term large-scale solution available for the ethical dilemmas surrounding what we eat. And the ethical dilemmas of farming in general are significant.”

    I have reasons I eat ethically – largely based on cruelty to animals. But I also choose not to buy products that have been produced in countries that use slave labour. So my ‘ethics’ goes well beyond a preference for natural products and beyond issues relating to animals.
    I also have reasons I try to eat (what you call) ‘naturally’. Namely I believe it is better for my health. I choose to eat things that are less processed and purchase foods and household products which do no contain harmful substances.
    Of course I have further reasons too, but I hope you get the idea. The argument that you use to outline our position: “What that means is that the less technology and science a process uses to put food on your plate, the more natural, and therefore the more ethical it is” – is flawed. The results may at times overlap, but one doesn’t lead to the other.

    Next, I do not believe we have an “anti-science” view, nor are we ‘irrational’. In fact I read widely on the topics of health and environment. It is experts in these fields that tell me that avoiding processed foods and additives is good for my health and that by eating as a vegan I will live longer and do the planet a big favour. I believe that science can assist us with better processes for agriculture and help us as we continue to learn more about our bodies (for example teaching me that I need to include flaxseed in diet to ensure I get appropriate levels of omega 3s).

    “the most artificial, technological and un-natural process – vat-grown meat – might be the only long-term large-scale solution available for the ethical dilemmas surrounding what we eat” – Hardly. How about promoting a diet based less around meat and more around plant proteins and vegetables? Humans can be healthy living on a Vegan diet, it would free up valuable agriculture space, solve issues of environmental degradation and animal cruelty and be markedly cheaper. So I think it’s fair to say that vat-grown meat is not the “only long-term large-scale solution.”

    * Remember too that some vegans and vegetarians will actually be early adopters of cruelty free meat. * Vegetarians already buy vegetarian sausages, mini roasts, vegie burgers and vegetable mince etc. As such I think it’s safe to say that some vegetarians will welcome the option of widening their palate.

    We are not afraid of progress Kyle, and we read just as you do. Perhaps the difference is that you recognise that “the ethical dilemmas of farming in general are significant,” but we are already doing something significant about it.

  15. John

    I think there are two separate issues here that are easily confused. Most vegetarians avoid meat either for ethical reasons or for health reasons. Of course, some do it for both and there are a few other reasons, e.g. some people think the idea of eating an animal’s body parts is just gross.

    When it comes to ethics, I think you can build a good case for vat-grown meat. If it tastes good, many vegetarians will probably learn to accept it.

    On the other hand, the health issues are another factor. It will likely take a considerable amount to research to determine whether vat-grown meat is healthier or more harmful than natural meat. This is tricky and will probably require long-term studies. Of course there will always be those who are convinced that all meat–animal and vat grown–is bad for you and your arteries no matter what the scientists discover.

    I was a vegetarian for twenty years primarily for health reasons and about ten years ago I reverted to omnivorism primarily for health reasons, but also because my girlfriend is primarily a carnivore. (Eating meat with her makes cooking easier.) Overall, I haven’t noticed any changes in my health either way. I applaud that animals won’t have to suffer to make vat-grown meat, but I’m extremely concerned that it won’t be healthy.

    If they are eventually able to make vat-grown meat that is completely indistinguishable from the animal meat, could it really be called “artificial” meat? If it’s grown from animal cells, would it really be “man-made” meat? Interesting questions. It may be hard to classify.

  16. John

    P.S. I don’t think most vegetarians believe, “the more natural, and therefore the more ethical it is.” It’s more like: “the more natural it is, the healthier it is.” Ethics has more to do with what’s good for the animal and what the animal prefers–not whether it’s natural.

  17. Dunc

    Nitpick: “You can’t make a solar powered cow”. Wrong. All cows (and all other animals, for that matter) are solar powered, just indirectly.

    Whether this would be an improvement on current farming practices depends on (a) the energy & resource issues other commenters have identified, and (b) which current farming practices you’re comparing it to. I see this all the time in the “meat debate” – everyone seems to assume that all meat is grain-fed in US-style CAFO conditions (i.e. the absolute worst case scenario), when in fact, a great deal of the world’s meat is produced from animals grazing on land which would not be used otherwise. For example, in the remoter parts of Scotland, it’s perfectly normal to see beef cattle wandering freely around what passes for villages, grazing on the road verges. (Or even people’s gardens, if their fences aren’t up to it…) And in much of the world, it’s equally normal for city-dwellers to have a few chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs out the back, which they feed on scraps. A fair bit of the world’s meat is effectively produced for free. Of course, it doesn’t show up in statistics for that very reason…

  18. Lockard

    Lots of words above ! The time spent on any subject is inversely proportional to its importance. (Paraphrasing one of Parkinson’s Lows)

    1. There’s so much ‘organic’ food out there, I wonder what happened to all the ‘inorganic’ food.

    2. There’s a lot of discussion above about imponderables.

    3. There’s not much discussion about production efficiency, nor production waste materials. – even more imponderable.

  19. Geoffrey Frasz

    Aspects of vat grown meats have treated well in Science Fiction for quite some time where some of ethical issues were first presented. Arthur C. Clarke first pointed out that there was no reason that one could not create a meat flavored product that had the exact flavor and texture of human flesh. If this is thinking about imponderables, well that is why we think about issues before they come up, so that when they do come up (and they will), we can have in advance some thoughts to work with.

  20. Mark Curtis

    I love the comments about the importance of the texture and flavor being “right” in order for people to eat Vat-Meat. Or saying that as long as it wasn’t too unnatural it would be okay.

    When you compare the amount of wieners, sausages, bratwurst, pepperoni, balogna, salami and “cold cuts” that are consumed in this country to the amount of straight up steaks and roasts, there’s no contest. Add to that the consumption of Spam, head cheese, turkey rolls and roasts, brunschweiger and mock crab and it becomes clear to me that America is in LOVE with unnatural meat. In fact, given the recent revelation that Taco Bell’s meat filling is less than 40% “real” meat, we barely need to have meat involved at all to eat unnatural meat.

    Forget about trying to make it look, feel and taste like steak. Grow it, grind it, add spices and shape it into something and you’ll make a fortune. I love the fact that sausage (with some of the most disgusting parts of the animal) is priced 50% higher than hamburger which is just (hopefully) muscle meat and fat.

    I also have to add that even the vegans eat unnatural meat – sort of. I love a dish at my local Asian restaurant called “Mock Duck.” It is chunks of tofu that has been processed and molded to look like poultry, complete with skin that looks as if it’s been plucked. It’s so close to the real thing that I once took a client there and he ordered the Mock Duck. During the meal, he was picking at the Tofu with his fork. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “I’m taking off the skin. That’s where all the fat is.” I never told him differently.

  21. Not telling you differently, but mock duck may be wheat based. Love it! And, wheat glutins, tofu and my favorite vat grown food, cheese! But, back to the future, skip the external vat, we each have ~28 feet of vat, seed with the right microbes, maybe modified nitrogen fixers, to produce our own high quality protein and then food can stop being such a time wasting obcession and we can get busy with basics, while sucking a stick to arrest our evolutionaly oral fixation hangover. Like, do you even know where we are in the universe?

  22. Robert

    @Jody giardina : I’m with you 100%. Bring on the Robert filet! Heck, people could even throw parties where folks get to choose someone else to eat! Yum!

  23. victoriousvic

    I personally would have to see some thorough research that vat grown meat was in fact more resource efficient then conventional and that it was just as or more healthy for you. I don’t see why a majority of americans would have a problem with it though as long as it tasted good – after all Taco Bell seems to be doing well and the ‘beef’ in their tacos is only 36% real beef, so people eat a lot of ‘vat grown’ meat anyway.

  24. Don

    Stop with the Taco Bell 38% number. That is a number claimed in a lawsuit and has never been verified. TB claims the percentage is greater than 85% which seems plausible. Remember, it can’t be 100%, otherwise it wouldn’t have any spices or flavoring in it.

  25. Sally

    Yuck. I want the real thing. I’m not into franken meat.

  26. Justin

    “It doesn’t have an immune system, so you don’t have to inject it with antibiotics or growth hormones.” — Common Sense Fail. Science Fail.

  27. Arch9enius

    Nikpo Said:
    ” my biggest concern – if you’re producing “petri-dish” meat… what the heck else are you growing in that petri-dish???? some sort of crazy new bacteria or virus that could possibly make whole batches disease ridden? How will you keep the production and packaging process sterile? ”

    Crazy new bacteriums or viruses tend to crop up in normal animal husbandry anyway… did you miss the bird flu/swine flu stuff recently?

    Chris Says Said:

    “I do wonder, though, if/when the day comes that we can produce a decent vat-grown steak, what happens to all the cows? It’s not like there are vast herds of wild Holsteins roaming the central plains – will they be reduced to exhibits in zoos, or face extinction?”

    People would still pay silly money to eat a ‘real’ cow, just like people pay silly money for shark’s fin soup, which is supposed to taste like nothing. I don’t know, I only have sensible money.

    A whole other possibility could be to clone whole batches of animals, whilst neglecting to clone the brain/brain stem/neural system. This would make the animals, technically, vegetables.. ergo suitable for vegitarians! This would of course raise the question – would a eating a human cloned as above be technically cannibalism?

  28. You really want to eat real organic meat, get yourself a rifle or shotgun and go out and hunt wild game. Hunters by and large do more and care more about the environment that any of you vegan hippies any day.

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