Five summers from now, the hamburgers you grill in the backyard may come from a Petri dish, not a pasture, and the steaks sizzling in restaurants may come with a seemingly fantastical disclaimer: No animal was harmed in the making of this meal.
That future is racing, cloven-hooved, toward a supermarket near you, as a handful of companies vie to become the first widespread supplier of meat that is made in a laboratory, using muscle cells from "donor" cows or pigs.
The product — called in vitro or “cultured” meat — stands to solve the twin problems of animal suffering and slaughter and to reduce the environmental toll exacted by large-scale animal farming in a nation where the average person consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat every year.
But its makers must first convince skeptical Americans, like Bob Benzinger of Tucson, Arizona, that cultured meat is not unethical, unnatural or just flat-out creepy.
“Lab-grown meat is a staple of science fiction, and as far as I am concerned, it can stay there,” said Benzinger, who said he sampled lots of "weird foods" in his career as a diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service and enjoys roasted baby goat, but is not eager to try cultured meat.
“Call me a troglodyte, but I like real meat or fish cooked over a real fire, just like my distant ancestors," Benzinger said.
Others welcome the opportunity to indulge in meat without accompanying guilt.
“Things have gotten so bad in the meat industry that we are really ripe for a disruptive industry to show us a better way forward,” said Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of The Humane Society of the U.S., headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The Humane Society, which advocates eating fewer animal products, says it recognizes the "great potential" for cultured meat to improve public health, alleviate suffering and build a more sustainable food system.
In “The Humane Economy,” his new nonfiction book about how animal advocates are changing society, Pacelle describes sampling a meat chip produced by Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based biotech company that is working to produce leather and meat without killing.
It was the first meat Pacelle, 50, had eaten in 31 years and it was “a little bit of a conflict for me,” Pacelle admits, since he had stopped eating animal products at age 19 after learning about the miserable lives of animals crammed into cages and crates at factory farms. He’s open, however, to the idea of cultured meat.
“Factory farming is human innovation detached from conscience,” Pacelle said. “It's time now to have human innovation attached to conscience. Cell-culture meat is one example of that. We’re finding a solution to a serious moral problem that has far superior outcomes for animals and the environment and public health without really compromising taste or any of our nutritional needs.
“I don’t see a moral dilemma with cultured meat any more than I do with producing insulin or an organ from cells,” he said.
That thought is echoed by Charles Camosy, a longtime pescetarian (he eats fish, but no other meat) and associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York City.
“We currently grow human ‘meat’ or tissue in laboratories already. In fact, we’ve grown simple organs like bladders in a lab and successfully implanted them in human beings. If there is no problem with growing tissue in human animals, then it is difficult to see what the problem would be with non-human animals,” Camosy said.
Diets of souls
Humans have struggled with the ethics of eating meat for millennia, across all cultures. John Houston's 2004 documentary “Diet of Souls," which explores the relationship between Alaskan Inuit and the animals they hunt, quotes a shaman who said, “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.”
Tovar Cerulli of Vermont has been both a vegetarian and vegan for ethical reasons, but when his health began to decline in his late 20s, he began eating meat again and took up hunting, a metamorphosis described in his book “The Mindful Carnivore.” He believes that conscientious hunting can be part of a "respectful, holistic way of eating and living."
As for in vitro meat, he says, “I guess I’d try it, but I wouldn’t be terribly happy to have it as a central part of my diet.”
Even if the substance is genetically equivalent to animal flesh, and no animals have to die, there’s an artificiality to the process that is troubling, said Cerulli, 45, a conservation consultant.
“We are mammals, too, and I think there’s something deeply disturbing about the idea of tissue that’s a lot like ours growing in a lab as a sheet or slab. It hits a little close to home.
“I don’t think the revulsion would be quite the same if you were growing slabs of carrots in a laboratory,” Cerulli said.
But the scientists developing cultured meat say their product is essentially that: a nutrient-dense and biologically pure food source that is healthier and kinder than our current options.
“I’m convinced that in 30 years, when we look back on today and how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and our handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful, and indeed, crazy,” said Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, in a TED talk on in vitro meat.
David Kay, business analyst for Memphis Meats, another developer of cultured meat, finds the term “laboratory grown meat” misleading.
“Cornflakes were developed in a lab, but we don’t call them ‘lab-grown cornflakes’ because they’re produced in factories,” he said.
Widespread consumption of cultured meat will reduce animal suffering while improving nutrition, Kay said, because the meat will not contain antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, pesticide or feces.
“The process we’re facilitating — cells eating nutrients and multiplying — is something that happens naturally. All our scientists are doing is re-creating a natural process,” he said.
The butcherless meat market
Memphis Meats, based in San Leandro, California — which is part of Silicon Valley — aims to have its products in restaurants within three years, in supermarkets within five. It does not want to become another alternative for consumers, but their primary source for animal protein, Kay said. The company wants to have a “big impact” on animal suffering and environmental harm caused by large-scale farms, “and the only way to do that is to go mainstream,” Kay said.
“We see cultured meat as doing to animal agriculture what the automobile did to the horse-and-buggy industry,” he said.
That disruptive change may be welcomed by vegetarians who might resume eating meat if an animal doesn’t have to suffer or die, but it comes at a cost, Cerulli said: a further distancing of human beings from nature.
“The average consumer has no idea where their meat comes from. Most of us don’t know how or where that animal lived or died, or even what part of the animal we’re eating,” Cerulli said. “There’s a significant risk of diminishing our sense of not only animals, but the entire living world.”
For Camosy, the Fordham theologian whose 2013 book “For Love of Animals” examined the Christian’s responsibility to animals, the benefits of cultured meat exceed its cost.
“Whatever moral concerns there might be with this process, they are far outweighed by the horrific practice of factory-farming 50 billion non-human animals in torturous conditions. If this takes us away from relying on those practices, it will be a very, very good thing,” he said.