July 09, 2005
Synthetic Meat of Mars

LiveScience has an update on something I swear I covered here a while back: growing Spam in a bottle.

Currently, small amounts of edible fish can be created in the lab. But University of Maryland doctoral student Jason Matheny says that this process could be adapted on an industrial scale -- whole factories producing fish sticks without the fish or chicken nuggets without the real birds.

"With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply," Matheny says. "And you could do it in a way that's better for the environment and human health. In the long run, this is a very feasible idea."

Lab-grown meats could be designed to be healthier too.

"For one thing, you could control the nutrients," Matheny says. "For example, most meats are high in the fatty acid Omega 6, which can cause high cholesterol and other health problems. With in vitro meat, you could replace that with Omega 3, which is a healthy fat."

Cultured meats would reduce the environmental burden that comes from raising livestock. Also, it wouldn't need to be treated with antibiotics and other drugs that are common in the industry.

The Earthly benefits of this are plain enough, but think of the psychological benefits of dietary variety for space settlers. Sure, it might taste like beef but have the texture of, say, tapioca pudding, but it beats eating hydroponic salad for every meal. And who knows what new five-star dishes the master chef at a lunar hotel might devise for the well-heeled space tourist clientele, using chicken, beef, and pork paste decanted in the meat caverns of Mare Sirenium?

Of course, if they do perfect the texture and flavor, so much the better -- even with the cachet of a luxury good, I can't imagine such dishes catching on back on Earth. If the synthetic substitute is as good as or better than the real thing, however, and it can be mass-produced at a lower cost than meat from cattle, it could destroy the market for the walking-around version. But I expect, if that day should eventually come, that we will see the perverse spectacle of environmental activists militating for the conversion of feedlots to habitat preserves to prevent the extinction of suddenly "endangered" domesticated cattle. "Save the Angus" could become the rallying-cry bumper sticker of a future generation.

On the other hand, think of all the neat things you could do with this food technology beyond merely making meat more healthy. If sufficient DNA could be obtained, any animal that ever walked the planet could potentially end up in your supermarket's meat aisle, regardless of endangered status or even extinction ...wooly mammoth, spotted owl, dodo, dinosaur, thylacine, even giant panda. And even this could be on the menu if you were so inclined, free of not only the cholesterol and saturated fat but also the guilt and shame that would normally be attached.

And now for your Zen thought of the day:

It's not known, for example, how to exercise an animal that doesn't exist...
Indeed.


Posted by T.L. James on July 9, 2005 10:12 PM

Comments

Re: exercising an animal that doesn't exist: Volta used electricity to stimulate the leg muscles of a dead frog around 1780, so I think we could figure it out. Perhaps a good reason to not just grow the muscle tissue in a vat, but to grow it in a system of bone, nerves and connective tissue.

Brings to mind a particularly grisly scene from a Greg Benford novel... but you know, a few minutes in a contemporary slaughterhouse might cause the image to pale significantly.

What is the sound of one leg flapping?



Posted by: Patrick at July 11, 2005 08:50 AM

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story around such a concept, but with the added twist that the recipe was that for human flesh.

Not so farfetched when you consider the recent introduction of Hufu--human flavored tofu (google it, ye doubters).



Posted by: M1A1 at July 11, 2005 11:12 AM

Wendy meat, wendy meat!



Posted by: David Mercer at July 11, 2005 06:33 PM

Robert Silverberg also had a story on this theme, specifically on the meat-for-moon-colonists aspect, called "The Calibrated Alligator".



Posted by: Mark at July 11, 2005 07:42 PM

I expect, if that day should eventually come, that we will see the perverse spectacle of environmental activists militating for the conversion of feedlots to habitat preserves to prevent the extinction of suddenly "endangered" domesticated cattle. "Save the Angus" could become the rallying-cry bumper sticker of a future generation.

In case of "heritage meats" that is happening already: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/07/06/FDGFFDFR341.DTL

I loved the quote (not in this article) on the matter: "We must eat them in order to save them". Which is absolutely true, given that the relationship between humans and farm animals is, in ecological terms, symbiotic. (That is, in terms of actual "scientific method" ecologists, not the self-described nature-worshipping "ecologists".)



Posted by: Ilya at July 12, 2005 07:50 AM

Good point -- I remember someone making an argument like that a few years back...that you don't see anyone campaigning to save chickens, pigs, or cattle from extinction for a very good reason. If you turn an animal into a food source the market will see to it that there are plenty of them.



Posted by: T.L. James at July 12, 2005 06:18 PM