Shmeat refers to a “sheet of lab-grown” meat. To make it, tissue engineers take stem cells from animals and place them in a nutrient-rich culture that, previously, had to be made from substances from animals, such as blood. But scientists have developed a non-animal nutrient option that, like photo synthesis, uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow the tissue. So far, says Mother Jones, they’ve only been able to grow meat cells 2.5 centimeters long and 0.7 centimeters wide. A recent report estimated that the world’s first in vitro burger could cost a half a million dollars, a far cry from the items on McDonald’s dollar menu.
Scientists met last week in a workshop in Gothenburg, Sweden, about what needs to be done to make manufacturing shmeat viable. I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 30 years and personally am not interesting in eating even a sliver of shmeat (or of any sort of meat, in general). But, as Mother Jones notes, with the world population continuing to grow, and per capita meat consumption (especially in China) grows along with it, lab-grown meat could be a viable option. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that meat consumption will double between 2000 and 2050.
Even more, lab-grown meat also holds some real benefits for the environment:
We wouldn’t need to use as much land for agriculture (both for raising livestock and for growing their feed). We wouldn’t have to use all the water that meat production requires, or the pesticides, hormones, or other problematic additives so common in industrial agriculture.
Indeed, a recent study from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that, when compared to regular beef, synthetic meat would:
- Use 45 percent less energy overall
- Create 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions
- Require 99 percent less land
- Use 96 percent less water
And we could reduce the threat of animal-to-human diseases, like bird flu, E. coli, and salmonella. It would also be possible to control things like the fat, cholesterol, or calorie content of a synthetic-meat product.
PETA is offering a $1 million reward for whoever can both create in vitro chicken, and make it commercially viable, by June 30, 2012 — in less than a year. The contest has been going on for three years and has stoked disputes within PETA. Is it all right to eat meat if it is created in vitro rather than by slaughtering animals? Or would it be better for people just to not eat meat at all?
Mother Jones notes that the real challenge for those environmental scientists, ethicists, social scientists and economists who are trying to produce “Franken-meat” and to make it economically feasible is, perhaps, a more basic, less philosophical, concern. There’s still an ingrained “yuck” factor about eating what is, indeed, ersatz meat; about chowing down on what could more properly be dubbed “meat product.” Researchers say they need more funding to continue their efforts to develop lab-grown meat. Might those funds be rather, or even better, used to encourage people to learn how to eat and live without meat?
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