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In praise of hydrobeef

It’s getting increasingly hard to find anything good to say about meat. It is expensive, sucking up lots of land, grain, and other resources. It has a large carbon footprint. Finally, industrial meat production is hard on the animals, even before they’re slaughtered.

But what if there was a technology that eliminated all three of these drawbacks, while giving us a large supply of low cost, custom-designed meat products. That is, what if we could grow meat in a vat? At this point, would there be any reasonable objection to eating meat?

It’s still a hypothetical question, but it won’t be for long. As Reuters reports today, a handful of researchers are working away at  “cultured” meat grown in-vitro out of stem cells. One of these scientists is Medical University of South Carolina, researcher Vladimir Mironov, who envisions “football field-sized buildings filled with large bioreactors, or bioreactors the size of a coffee machine in grocery stores” to produce this meat.

Even better:

"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.

It is telling that while the US government won’t fund his research, PETA will. Because PETA understands that the goal is not to micro-manage consumer preferences, it is to prevent harm to animals. And if that is taken out of the equation, there’s not a lot to object to. There is of course the “Ick” factor, but I suspect that would disappear quite quickly once the product hit the market.

A few more thoughts:

1. Any “ick” objections (or “ick” objections disguises as moral objections) could be handled by a serious and mandatory labeling regime.

2. The idea of custom-designed meat products opens up a whole new realm for interesting (and relatively harmless) competition. You can imagine celebrity chefs designing their own special lines of meat textures and tastes; a well-designed “blend” could be sold for meatballs, or stews, or meatpies, etc. Imagine a steak that was a mixture of lamb and venison?

3. At the same time, in-vitro meat will suffer from all the drawbacks of everything else that is produced cheaply and for mass consumption – it will be “inauthentic”. And so it will also open up a more pernicious form of authenticity-mongering amongst people who only eat meat grown “on the hoof”. At the extreme, you can imagine private or inviation-only restaurants and supper-clubs opening up where certified on-the-hoof meat is provided to the privileged elite.

4. But even that might not be such a bad thing; at the very least, it is hard to see how it would be net loss to the planet, to the animals, or consumers.

5. The upshot is that it is hard to see the downside to in-vitro meat. Am I missing something?