Monday, October 19, 2009

Would you eat meat grown in the lab?

Last week CNN highlighted a story on in vitro meat. PETA is offering US$1 million to the first company that brings lab-grown meat to consumers by 2012. The TV programme featured New Harvest, a non-profit organisation, who is in active pursuit of this research.

The whole idea is to stop farming animals for meat and instead grow animal muscle tissue in the lab through cell cultures. This is supposed to effectively stop animal cruelty, as the harvesting of muscle cells which would serve as the precursor for the cultures, do not harm the animals. Other benefits is said to be the lower cost of production, and in vitro meat is supposed to be cleaner - free from disease and microbial contamination. To know more, you can read this Wikipedia page.

My initial reaction when I heard this was... horror! It sounded like some Frankenstein-ish project. Images of muscles grown in petri dishes and incubators flashed in my over-imaginative mind. And when I came across the 'bioreactor' part in Wikipedia, I started picturing a slurry of cell culture and how the process engineers would have to deal with reducing frothing and ensure proper sterilisation of the nutrient media. Taking things to another level, I started thinking what kind of nutrient media they would use and what if they added some sort of growth factor that could impair our genetic makeup in the long run?

Bottom line at that moment - I was dead against it. But then, thinking more about the matter, it does have its pros. For example the 'cleaner' advantage in vitro meat has. We would be able to prevent epidemics or meat-related diseases such as mad cow disease, red tide and flesh-eating bacteria contaminations - provided that the cell sample collected from the source animal was not already contaminated. Another benefit would be preventing environmental pollution from seeping into our diet. Currently, we worry about where our fresh meats are from, what the farm animals are eating and drinking. We get countless forwarded emails warning of fish caught from the Mekong river having high levels of heavy metals and unscrupulous farmers feeding their cattle with meat-based feedstocks to hasten muscle growth via a high protein diet. Heavy metals, prions, radioactive waste, deadly algal toxins... and the list goes on. You'll never be done worrying about what goes into your food!

Oh, and another interesting pro for in vitro meat is the decrease in the need for farming cattle (for meat). I think most of us have heard that cows and their methane farts and burps are one of the causes of global warming? A weird-ass funny but supposedly true fact (hope it's not just another over-exagerated fact/excuse that certain parties are using to blackmail us into adopting their policies). Anyway, in vitro meat could cut down that unwanted bowel expulsion of methane gas from these 'highly explosive' ruminants. And so, we get to save the world! *puts on a Miss Universe smile*

But when it comes down to the moment where you have to decide whether you will eat in vitro meat, what would your response be? Yes or No? For me, I think I would still say No. Don't get me wrong, I'm an animal lover and all, but there's still something uneasy about the idea of growing meat in a lab (or factory - once this idea is successfully commercialised). It's the same feeling you'd get about genetically-modified (GM) plants. Although companies like Monsanto would swear by their GM products' safety, we still prefer natural plants or even better, organic or wild species plants as our food source.

Just a thought: If this idea of in vitro meat were to actually take flight in the future, I wonder whether one day we could see chicken meat in our supermarket with fancy shapes like hearts, flowers and the likes? Knowing the Japanese, with their ever-innovative ideas of repackaging common place items, someone could experiment with growing these muscles in a mould or something!

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