Growing meat without a face

It’s been 3 years since PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) made headlines with one of its most controversial campaigns: The animal protection organization offered $1 million to the scientist(s) that could create lab-grown meat by June 30, 2012.

Known for their media stunts a la naked women showering in the middle of city streets to show how much water is used to raise one hamburger, or throwing vegan whip cream pies in the face of fur designers, an interest in any meat product seemed to be made in error. But in vitro meats offer an end to the suffering of billions of animals, who every year live and die in cramped, crowded, disease-filled and often abusive self-regulated factory farms. Growing meat means leaving the flesh, heart, brain—and soul—of the animal out of the equation. In other words,  have your steak and eat it too, with all of the taste and none of the death.

The potential for lab grown meat has environmentalists as excited as animal rights activists. The natural resources consumed by animals are diminishing in record numbers, leaving a path of destruction that’s polluting the air, water and soil. The environmental impact of raising more than 10 billion animals just in the U.S. each year is confounding. Scientists suggest that methane produced by factory farm cows accounts for roughly 1/3 of the world’s greenhouse gases. One pound of wheat requires 25 gallons of water versus 2,500 gallons for a pound of meat. By 2030, experts estimate we’ll be eating 70 percent more meat than in 2000, which would increase the impact on our environment in staggering ways. And, antibiotic resistance, food borne pathogens and a number of other health risks all share a connection to the inevitably unsanitary conditions of densely raising billions of animals every year in crammed, dark and filthy factory farms.

Michael Specter of The New Yorker recently explored the potential of in vitro meat as the PETA deadline nears, dissecting the science of growing only the parts of animals used for food. It starts with cells from mice or pigs that are able to grow and form into different types of meat. But PETA and the rest of the world might not get to celebrate July 4th 2012 with the first in vitro t-bone steak. To date, the largest in vitro meat is merely a few centimeters big.

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Photo: gavin rice