Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Future of Agriculture - In Vitro Meat

With the speed at which biotechnology is progressing, it seems very likely that by the end of the decade, we'll be able to grow meat in laboratories at a price that is competitive with meat grown in ranches. It is already possible to produce it, but as of now it is horrendously expensive and has the texture of runny eggs. Not exactly appetizing. Scientists have learned that they can manually "stretch" the cells in a laboratory to mimic the muscle movements of a live animal. By the end of the decade, it is likely that scientists will have the ability to produce lab-grown versions of meats like hamburgers and hot dogs, for which texture is not as important. It will probably take several years longer before we get to taste any lab-grown steaks.

New Harvest is a non-profit dedicated to the research and development of in vitro meat. PETA has offered a $1 million reward for the first team that can develop lab-grown chicken with the taste and texture of real chicken (although their 2012 deadline makes it highly unlikely that anyone will claim the prize). How would the world change if we switched from farm-grown meat to lab-grown meat? The benefits of this are hard to overstate.

The environmental impact will be enormous. Every pound of beef requires 30 or more pounds of crops to feed the cow. Pork and chicken aren't quite as crop-intensive as beef, but nevertheless consume a very large amount of resources. This is a huge drain on our water supplies and farmland. If our meat was grown in a lab, it could completely eliminate these problems, freeing up our land and water supplies to be used for other productive things or returned to nature. Along with solar energy, this is the emerging environmental technology that I am most excited about.

The health impacts of lab-grown meat could be very large too. As it stands now, red meat is extremely unhealthy. It has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Growing our meat in the laboratory would enable us to tinker with the genes to make it more nutritious, and to control how much fat is in the meat. Imagine eating something that tastes like a cow, with the nutritional content of a fish. We would be able to eat some of our favorite foods as often as we wanted, without any guilt or negative health consequences.

Furthermore, those with moral or religious qualms about eating meat could sleep easily at night, knowing that no animal was killed just so that they could eat dinner.

I think that right now, the "yuck" factor might dissuade people from trying it. But this is really just a matter of how the lab-grown meat was marketed. If it had the same taste and texture of actual meat, I definitely could see this becoming very popular. And after it became commonplace, the "yuck" factor would disappear on its own. What do you think? Would you eat lab-grown meat, assuming it had the same taste and texture of regular meat, at a reasonable price? I certainly would. It could save the world.

(Donations to New Harvest are tax deductible under US law, and are spent on university research on in vitro meat. It's a great cause with enormous potential to transform the world.)

By 2022 - Lab-grown hamburger (with the taste and texture of real hamburger) is sold commercially, for the same price or less.
By 2029 - Lab-grown steak (with the taste and texture of real steak) is sold commercially, for the same price or less.

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