Flask-Grown Flesh

| 20th July 2008
If radical vegan Ingrid Newkirk has her way, the nouvelle cuisine on vegetarian menus in five years time may be a big juicy steak.

Newkirk, founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has offered a $1 million prize to whoever can scale-up stem cell techniques that grow edible animal tissue – so called lab-grown meat – for a mass market.

This artificial meat, cultured from muscle cells and already been grown on a small scale, could spare millions of animals, PETA argues. It hopes for cruelty-free test-tube turkey meat in time for Christmas 2012. Industrial advocates, such as the New Harvest Foundation, point to the environmental benefits. They claim the technology might help offset the 18 per cent of current greenhouse gas emissions attributable to animal production. Taking land out of livestock grazing and diverting protein away from animals could also help rebalance the food system.

All of which are good arguments against meat-eating, but not necessarily for the proposed switch to flesh in a flask. Meat-eaters and vegetarians I floated the idea past seemed equally horrified by the idea – more so than eating dead animals. PETA’s prizewinner may need to spend further millions of PR dollars convincing the public. The New York Times reports ‘near civil war’ within PETA, with members leaving in protest. Opponents point out that meat’s known health problems are not addressed; others worry new safety risks might appear, especially if tissue engineers turn to genetic engineering to improve their cultured flesh.

Organic production will likely exclude lab-grown meat in principle, while kosher and halal will have a hell of a fight. Nor is it a shoo-in that lab-grown meat will replace the animal meat market. Culturing exotic meats opens new niche markets – anyone for lion? A panda burger? What about ethical human cannibalism?

Most intriguing about the PETA prize is the switch in strategy it represents for civil society activism. Newkirk and her colleagues appear to be giving up on the battle to protect animals through social legislation and putting their faith (and money) into a technological silver bullet, a lab-cultured quick fix. It’s a familiar story: climate change campaigners, depressed by the battle to change carbon-hungry lifestyles, embrace nuclear power. Global health advocates push for pharmaceutical ‘solutions’ rather than against inequality and poverty. The argument that social change is too hard leads single-issue fanatics to depend on technological and market fixes for the heavy lifting.

Of course social change is hard and sometimes dispiriting, but its also extremely important. Abdicating to the efficiency of the market means abandoning important nuances. Social justice and notions of equity tend to be ignored by markets that often hand technological control to the already powerful. If test-tube meat hits the big time, we will likely know by its appearance in a Big Mac or when agribusiness buys out the patent-holder. Farmers will not benefit at all. Lab-grown meat may taste cruelty-free to PETA, but it smells like the same old rotten industrial food system to me.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

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