Opinion: Weighing up lab-grown steak—the problems with eating meat are not Silicon Valley's to solve

October 12, 2017 by Oron Catts, The Conversation
Is there such a thing as a victim-less steak? Credit: Matthew Dillon/Flickr, CC BY-SA

A new techno bubble is inflating above the meadows of Silicon Valley: lab-grown meat, which plays a major part in what's being called cellular agriculture (CA).

Based on a seductive story of providing food with zero consequences, CA promises to get rid of the ethical, environmental and health costs of animal husbandry. How? By growing animal products without the animal and its body.

This movement is very much aligned with the inflated rhetoric of the innovation economy. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being sunk into the promise of CA. People like Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and other venture capitalists are reportedly among notable investors.

But does this techno-capitalist mindset really fit our food system?

In my view, these initiatives are aimed at prolonging the West's excessive consumption of , rather than genuine attempts to deal with the problems they claim to solve.

Designing living products

As far as we know, the first time someone ate a piece of in-vitro meat was in Nantes, France in 2003. As part of our art installation Disembodied Cuisine, we grew about five grams of a frog muscle tissue and served it to six guests.

This was part of the Tissue Culture & Art Project, which I set up with my collaborator, Ionat Zurr. Since 1996, we have used tissue engineering to probe the changing relationship humans have to life, including to food, which is one of our most intimate connections.

But despite its artistic origins, CA is ascending rapidly up the curve towards what's known as "the peak of inflated expectations", according to Gartner's technological development hype cycle.

Tissue Engineered Steak No.1 2000 A study for Disembodied Cuisine. This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals. Credit: The Tissue Culture & Art Project, Author provided

Now that commercial interests are intertwined with the development of CA, it's getting harder to verify the technology: trade secrets, nondisclosure agreements, and fancy product launches at non-academic conferences such as TED and South by South West (SXSW) arguably obscure, excite and misinform.

Indeed, claims about resources, costs and returns are designed to attract investors more than actual consumers.

Take, for example, the suggestion that "clean meat does not require antibiotics or hormones, making it a safer product for consumers".

It may be created without controversial "growth hormone" drugs, but cells growing outside the body will not proliferate and mature without proper hormonal signals and growth factors that instruct them to do so.

Lab grown meat is a reality, but is it a solution?

Many projections promoting the rise of CA point to an increase in meat consumption thanks to global population growth and an increase in affluence.

In other words, CA aims to keep us eating meat at and beyond current levels.

If there is a lesson from our current modes of large-scale , it's that optimising and upscaling living systems towards a desirable outcome – namely, industrial farming – is not always environmentally sound.

The environmental impact of generating and transporting feed and dealing with the waste of factory scale meat production might not be wholly different in factory-grown meat.

The Semi-Living Steak after roughly four months of growth. Credit: The Tissue Culture & Art Project, Author provided

When it comes to the health issues and health benefits of CA, the risks of over-consumption of animal based-protein are also rarely discussed.

This is not surprising, as the only way to generate investment is to promise a growing market for the product. Therefore, by Silicon Valley logic, money must be invested in changing attitudes towards a techno fix. That cash will rarely go to a campaign for behavioural change to reduce meat consumption in the west.

Simply reducing meat in our diet is a much simpler, albeit non-technological, step in the right direction.

Overshoot engineering

In many ways, growing meat in the lab is an over-engineered solution to problems associated with current meat production and consumption.

Changing public attitudes towards engineered food is often based on the premise that it is biologically identical to meat from a body, but this move from farm to factory might ultimately be a hard sell. And this is probably one of the reasons for so many PR and marketing people in the field are working to bring about this perceptual change.

A much more realistic approach to CA is to treat it like molecular gastronomy: an expensive, novel and luxury experience for the 1%, and not something that will save the world any time soon.

After eating the lab-grown frog steaks in 2003, I made a decision to reduce my to almost zero. And I'm still around, albeit generating a massive carbon footprint touring the world trying to explain why CA might not be the techno fix we are hoping for.

Explore further: Avoiding meat during pregnancy linked with later substance misuse by children

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rderkis
5 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2017
I don't know about the rest of you, but a lab grown filet mignon (perfect in all ways) weighing in at 1 1/2 lbs and cost $1, sound perfect to me. :-)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2017
Simply reducing meat in our diet is a much simpler, albeit non-technological, step in the right direction.

I see lab grown meat as one aspect towards a solution - not as the only component of a solution. We can eat less meat *and* the meat that we do eat can be lab grown.

Certainly, if we ever want to have substantial number of people off-planet we'll need a way to produce lab grown meat that is more affordable than "novelty food for the 1%".
I can't see the off-world part of the population being all-vegan, forever.
RichManJoe
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
If they can reduce the environmental cost of lab grown meat to be equivalent to other high protein foods, naturally grown, then what is the problem with it?

But why not manufacture lab grown milk? If you consider the inefficiencies of animal made milk, they are astronomical. Grow just the bovine mammary glands instead - it seems this could be much more efficient.
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
I see lab grown meat as one aspect towards a solution - not as the only component of a solution. We can eat less meat *and* the meat that we do eat can be lab grown.


Yours point is sensible.

The criticism of the author is that this is not something we can control, because when meat goes from the farm to the factory it ultimately becomes cheaper, and under a free market the people can simply choose to eat more of it. That is assuming of course that they want to.

The question the author is begging is that the people would do so, against their own interests. This assumption is necessary to justify what he feels is the "only correct solution", which is to control what people may eat; ultimately it is about banning meat.

The real issue is that people like the author wish to save the people from themselves, under the implicit assertion that the people cannot do so on their own, to provide himself a point and purpose as a nanny of the world.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2017
In other words: identifying problems where there are none is the selling point of the political class these days, left and right. Doesn't matter whether it's climate change, public health, or immigrants and national security.

Previously, the politicos sold themselves to the public as the people who are going to make the world a better place by instituting some utopist plan and a system, but history proved that they're just as likely to bodge it up and make things horribly worse. So now they're selling themselves as problem solvers, saviors and protectors against disasters and calamities, and problem solvers need problems to exist.

They're the people who sell you crocodile whistles, if you know the old joke.

All you have to do is give them your vote, your power, and your money, and the crocodiles won't appear.
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
Lots of good points being made, in the article and the comments.

What is the difference between a preacher's sermon, an advertising campaign and a cultural propaganda?

Not a damn thing that I can see.

Truly, we humans are terrible at making choices for ourselves as well as for others. We have earned the proud designation of Humanity as Homo Anthropophagus.

A couple of months ago, another commentator and myself got into dispute (imagine that!). Over whether or not drinking so-called 'lite' beers was worth the effort to lift the can to my lips.

My final response was "Drinking piss is healthier for me that drinking a stout ale. But it ain't the choice I'm going to make!"
rderkis
1 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2017
Not a damn thing that I can see.

It's good to see your a christian! :-)
Eikka
not rated yet Oct 13, 2017
Truly, we humans are terrible at making choices for ourselves as well as for others


It's like what Alan Watts was saying about the atomic bomb.

If anyone's going to press the button, they'll be in a great panic to do so. The more you worry about it, the more you make other people worry about it, the more likely it is that some poor fellow, whipped into a great panic, is going to push the button.

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2017
If they can reduce the environmental cost of lab grown meat to be equivalent to other high protein foods, naturally grown, then what is the problem with it?

Currently the issue seems to be taste (same issue would exist for 'lab grown milk'). Food isn't just protein.

This doesn't seem like an insurmountable problem, but it's still something to be solved.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 13, 2017
There are already good meat substitutes out there which are meatless but indistinguishable from real meat.

Tofurkey is one. Whole Foods has fake chicken in their prepared foods section that is very good.
Eikka
not rated yet Oct 17, 2017
There are already good meat substitutes out there which are meatless but indistinguishable from real meat.

Tofurkey is one. Whole Foods has fake chicken in their prepared foods section that is very good.


The problem with those tend to be that they're not mimicking meat, but the finished meal. The substitutes come in pre-cooked nuggets or meat loafs etc. that you just heat up. There's no cooking involved, no variety, and the taste is all in the spices and condiments. That's why they choose to mimick chicken - because chicken has a weak flavor that is commonly completely masked by spices.

Tofu by itself is just a rather bland block of bean cheese. If you slap it on a grill, you don't get a steak.

Plus, there's a lack of nutrients like B12, and you have to eat twice as much tofu to get the same amount of proteins as from meat, and more people are allergic to soy/legumes than meat.

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