When Winston Churchill, in the 1932 essay “Fifty Years Hence,” mused that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he may have been more prescient than credited. Alexis Carrel had already been keeping a cultured chunk of chicken heart “alive” in a Pyrex flask for the past twenty years by feeding it nutrients (though Carrel was only interested in whether cell death was inevitable, not whether meat could be grown in a lab for human consumption). Sci-fi author Frederik Pohl was one man who took the idea of in vitro meat seriously enough to write about it – in the novel The Space Merchants, where cultured meat is the primary source of protein. That was science fiction, sure, but most good sci-fi is borne of the author’s honest opinion of what the future might hold and it’s usually inspired by the scientific advancements of the day. And sometimes, science fiction comes true. Like this time.
Dutch scientists were able to grow pork in a lab test tube. They extracted myoblast cells from the muscle of a living pig, incubated them in a piglet fetus-blood-nutrient solution, and got “a soggy form of pork.” No one’s tried the “pork” due to lab rules, but it’s derived from the same myoblast cells that generate muscle in response to tissue damage in an actual animal – ideally, this would taste exactly like pork muscle meat. They’ve even got plans to “exercise” the tissue, which could conceivably do away with the sogginess and provide a meatier chewing experience.
The Dutch scientists weren’t the first; four years ago, a research paper detailed plans to engineer in vitro meat on a massive, industrial scale, and others have been trying in vain for years to produce a decent lab-grown steak. The soggy pork is perhaps the closest they’ve gotten. Every researcher runs into a couple basic issues. First, there are generally two accepted methods for growing in vitro meat: the generation of either loose muscle cells or structured, “real” muscle. The latter is the ideal path, because it might make cohesive cuts of meat possible, but it’s also the most challenging. Real muscle growth depends on perfusion, or the delivery of arterial blood bearing nutrients to biological tissue, and a similar system might be required for “real” lab grown muscle. Until then, only thin sheets of muscle meat have been grown. These can be compressed into meat sheets or ground up, but a three-dimensional, juicy rare steak is still far off. The easy way out is to grow loose muscle cells, but unless you’re prepared for a future of unrecognizable meat products, you might want to wait for that soggy pork to firm up.
Where do I stand on the idea of in vitro meat? Well, I’m more than a little skeptical as you might imagine. Natural animal reproduction already does a pretty good job at growing meat, and major deviations from the natural order have a spotty track record. Big Pharma, for example, represents one big attempt after another to replace the natural order. It gets things right from time to time – I won’t argue against that – but it also creates unnecessary products that purport to protect patients from conditions that could otherwise be handled through lifestyle modifications. Both Big Pharma and the in vitro meat researchers are trying to understand incredibly complicated physiological processes that took millions of years to develop naturally. The vast interplay between hormones, nutrients, and environmental factors (including exercise, diet, and drugs) in the human body is difficult – if not impossible – to parse, but that’s exactly what medicine tries to do. When you take a drug, you’ve got to hope pharmacists took every possible factor into account. They can make educated guesses, and they’re often right, but not always. Statins, as prescribed, do a helluva job at lowering cholesterol (a pretty pointless gesture, but they do what they say they’ll do – note that they don’t promise reductions in actual heart disease), but they do so by interrupting the same passages used by other important bodily players – like CoQ10. It’s a complex thing, the human body.
Animal bodies are no different, and a steak isn’t just a matrix of muscle cells. It’s got fat (several kinds!), blood vessels, collagen, and different textures (which depend on the activity level of the animal; the lab meat cubes better have access to treadmills). Nutrients have to be shuttled in and waste out (grass-fed in vitro meat?). If you want a real steak with a bloody center, how is that achieved in the lab? Blood pockets? What’s the blood made of? What if I want a cowboy ribeye, bone-in – are they trying to grow bone, too? And I worry about the saturated fat content. One scientist mentioned replacing the Omega 6s with Omega 3s, which sounds promising, but I can only think the next step is to replace the saturated fats with even more Omega 3s (or, shudder, canola oil). Will it even taste the same?
At the same time, I remain open-minded. If they’re able to grow meat with perfect Omega 3/Omega 6 ratios, no hormones, no antibiotics, on a “diet” that recreates real grassy pasture, that tastes like meat, has the same texture as meat, the same saturated fat content as meat – I might be convinced to give it a shot. And if it’s cheaper than grass-fed meat, easier on the environment than industrial farming, and easy to produce on a mass scale without sacrificing quality, why wouldn’t I support it? Remember: I don’t glorify the ancestral, natural ways because they are ancestral and natural. It’s just that paying attention to evolution and being wary of modern “improvements” has paid off. The Primal Blueprint works. If in vitro meat works (and it’s proven beyond a doubt that it’s identical to real meat – a tall order, I grant you), why shouldn’t we give it a shot?
Still, I can’t help but doubt it. It’s not so much that I’m wary of processed food, because perfect in vitro meat that recreates actual meat is theoretically different than HFCS, boxed goods, and industrial vegetable oils, and it has the potential to revolutionize food (you mean I get to eat a black panther steak? Sign me up!); it’s that following the natural order has been so good to me. I eat according to human evolution, I exercise in accordance with my body’s design, and things have generally worked out well. Eating real steak raised the way it was intended to live has also worked out okay. I’ll keep my real meat for now and watch warily from the sidelines, curious and always skeptical.
Both Pohl and Churchill were undoubtedly inspired by Carrel’s experiment, but the prevailing public opinion was that the decades-old chicken heart was an abomination. It still lived when Carrel died, 28 years later, but the experiment was soon halted. If it weren’t for the negative public reaction, that chicken heart might still be pumping today. I suspect the initial public reaction to in vitro meat would be pretty similar, but what do you think?
If no, what would it take to convince you? Anything? Is there any possible scenario in which in vitro meat is a good thing for this world? Share your thoughts in the comment section!