Will The World Have an Appetite For Slimeburgers

Prof Mark Post, a researcher at the University of Maastricht, has spent several years developing a technique for growing meat in the lab. Yesterday, he unveiled the product of his work: a petri-dish beefburger, grown from stem cells. Genetically, it is beef, but it has never seen a cow. The eye-watering price tag represents the cost of the whole project (Google’s Sergey Brin was picking up the bill). The shamburger was cooked via a live video stream on the internet, and was pronounced as basically meat-like (if lacking salt and fat) by a panel of chefs, who for some reason ate it without ketchup.

There’s something a bit distasteful about doing science by press conference like this, but otherwise this should be a source of unalloyed joy for those of us, like me, who love a good chunk of meat but feel a nagging disquiet knowing that a conscious being had to be bred and then killed in order for me to eat it. Likewise, it should be pleasing to those of us, also like me, who are uncomfortably aware that growing crops, feeding them to animals, and then feeding the animals to humans is a sadly inefficient way of using farmland.

What’s more, if stem-cell meat takes off, it will speed up research in related areas, which could lead to us being able to grow human organs for transplant, thus saving lives. And while the price is prohibitive now, the experience of other areas of technology suggest it won’t be for long: in computing, Moore’s Law suggests that prices halve every 18 months, and genetic research is getting cheaper at a similar rate. Meat-eaters and vegetarians alike should be rejoicing.

And, in the main, they are. The animal-rights ethicist Peter Singer has said that after 40 years of vegetarianism he is looking forward to eating a vat-grown burger. Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford, agreed, saying that we have a moral duty to support this research: artificial meat is better for animals and the environment, and could one day be better (and cheaper) for us. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), the reliably nutty and usually naked animal-rights extremists, have got on board, saying that it will spell the end of abattoirs and factory farming.

There have been a few voices of disapproval. A chef, Sybil Kapoor, told Radio 4’s Today programme that it seemed unnatural, and that it would have health risks. (It won’t, for the record, or at least it won’t have any health risks that beef doesn’t. It’s just beef, grown in a sterile environment.) Someone quoted on ITV News called it “a bit Frankenstein”. But in general, the response has been positive.

That’s interesting and instructive, because one of the greatest obstacles to technological progress, especially but not only in areas such as food and medicine, has been the sense of “ickiness”: the sense that what we’re doing is in some ill-defined sense against nature, that we’re playing God, messing with things that man shouldn’t. When Edward Jenner vaccinated people against smallpox using cowpox, there was a widespread outcry, with newspaper cartoons showed patients turning into cows. Genetically modified food is seen as “unnatural”, and a significant minority of people believe that using a fish gene in a tomato will make the tomato taste of fish. The perceived dangers of nuclear power far outstrip the real ones; cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, even blood transfusions and transplants have met opposition from people who think that we ought to leave well alone.

Apparently they were growing little parcels of muscle tissue, about the size of a grain of rice each. They had to keep them frozen once grown until they had enough to make a burger out of.

Basically, they grew mince. They're nowhere near a whole steak yet, although the next step they plan very soon is to add fat cells.

The extra ingredients added colour, as it seems without it the beef was actually white.

There is absolutely nothing inefficient about animals in a field eating grass then eating the animal. If you want to drink milk it is pretty well a necessity, as a cow will only produce milk when she has a calf, and 50% of the calves are male.

A huge proportion of land is entirely unsuitable for growing crops but absolutely fine for grazing ruminants like cows or sheep. Environmentalists seem completely blind to this.

Also the point about grazing animals in fields is it is environmentally infinitely sustainable. It takes no fertiliser or pesticides, supports a whole ecosystem of dung-eating insects, birds and small predators and is actually not very different to how cattle and sheep lived in the wild - just we have cleared away our rival top predators like lions. It is neither inefficiently nor unnatural. And they taste great too!

I really don't see how lab raised cryptomeat is going to compete against a field where the animal can find his own food. Labs and special food cost real money - grass doesn't, it just grows.

This project is the usual pseudo-scientific bollocks by the priests of unforseseen circumstances. Say this works: yet more unbridled reproduction until the factories that churn this muck out are overwhelmed until Soylent Green becomes a reality. Meanwhile, all domestic cattle will disappear, apart from a few thousand owned by billionaires.

As for cruelty, question: is it less cruel to let a breed of cattle go extinct than be killed for meat? Because it it is, then then we should all join the voluntary extinction society, because our meat is consumed one way or another after death, and it is surely kinder to an unborn child to leave it unborn rather than have to go through life, facing the inevitability of death. Arguably crueler for humans than cattle, who have no awareness of this inevitability.

Of course, with no competition, there will be no comparison, and no way for future generations to know the difference in flavour between bland mush like this and an aged piece of Aberdeen Angus.

What is the point? Anyone who knows what Moore's Law means must surely be aware that the people who are currently starving because they outbreed their local resources will continue to do so as long as they are fed by whatever means.

The answer to reproduction-based famine is not more food, it is contraception.

Of course all of this plays well to the kind of science worshipping left-wing techno-enthusiasts who looks forward gleefully to a future based firmly in Huxley and Orwell's nightmares.

No more inequality - we all eat crap. Apart from the Kommisars, of course.

Also this talk of vat raised meat conveniently ignores the cost of feeding meat in a vat. Cows have extraordinarily efficient digestive systems able to take entirely useless grass from land unsuitable for crops and by a multi-stage digestion turn it into lovely meat, on its own. Meat in a vat can't do that, because it has no stomach. So it has to be fed an inherently more expensive food. I just don't see the point.

One thing that should alarm people is the fact that the body is able to identify unreal food and treat it as an invader. Unreal foods can have an adverse effect on the imune system. We should aslo be aware of the the dangers that other unnatural foods such as GM corn and soya as well as synthetic sweeteners are responsible for.

Until those that want to introduce these 'wonders' have allowed 5 generations of their offspring to eat this stuff, no one else should touch it.


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Transhumanism Index