Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Politics: The Conscience of a Carnivore

William Saletan likes meat, but he recognizes the moral conundra it poses:

Shrinks call this "cognitive dissonance." You munch a strip of bacon then pet your dog. You wince at the sight of a crippled horse but continue chewing your burger. Three weeks ago, I took my kids to a sheep and wool festival. They petted lambs; I nibbled a lamb sausage. That's the thing about humans: We're half-evolved beasts. We love animals, but we love meat, too. We don't want to have to choose. And maybe we don't have to. Maybe, thanks to biotechnology, we can now grow meat instead of butchering it.
Saletan's solution? We're close to being able to grow meat instead of killing it.
By growing meat in labs, the way we grow tissue from stem cells. That's the great thing about cells: They're programmed to multiply. You just have to figure out what chemical and structural environment they need to do their thing. Researchers in Holland and the United States are working on the problem. They've grown and sautéed fish that smelled like dinner, though FDA rules didn't allow them to taste it. Now they're working on pork. The short-term goal is sausage, ground beef, and chicken nuggets. Steaks will be more difficult. Three Dutch universities and a nonprofit consortium called New Harvest are involved. They need money. A fraction of what we spend on cattle subsidies would help.

Growing meat like this will be good for us in lots of ways. We'll be able to make beef with no fat, or with good fat transplanted from fish. We'll avoid bird flu, mad-cow disease, and salmonella. We'll scale back the land consumption and pollution involved in cattle farming. But 300 years from now, when our descendants look back at slaughterhouses the way we look back at slavery, they won't remember the benefits to us, any more than they'll remember our dried-up tears for a horse. They'll want to know whether we saw the moral calling of our age. If we do, it's time to pony up.
Of course, Saletan doesn't particularly explore the fact that most people would probably be freaked out by lab-grown meat, even though it doesn't pose near the ecological difficulties that biotechnology agriculture does. And I can't see the ingredients on the side of a lab-grown beef package reading merely: beef. There are a few zillion chemicals that will probably sneak in there as well, not that real beef probably doesn't contain a zillion environmental toxins anyway.

I don't think the evangelicals would freak out too badly; I don't recall anything in Revelations that would suggest that lab-grown chicken nuggets signal the end-times.

I'm not holding my breath, but I'll cross my fingers. I do sorta miss barbecue ribs.


J Hearne said...

I believe Revelation 21:8 covers it, Garrett.

"But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."
(Rev 21:8)

It's "lying-meat?"

Look i'm not saying that it works. BUT I am saying that you should never underestimate the ability of some people to manipulate the text.

michael said...

ummm, people have been freaking out over "frankenfood" and trying to stop things like rice genetically modified to produce vitamin A, which would reduce worldwide blindness significantly. lab grown meat would cause these people to freak the hell out. personally i have no inner conflict about loving animals and eating meat, so i couldn't care less.

Pepper said...

Darn, I was hoping science would first develop intelligent food, ala "Meet the Meat" in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

On the other hand, I am a little excited for "I Can't Believe It's Not Steak!"

P.S. Before you reply, yes I realize that it actually is steak. It was just a more tasteful joke than some other ones I could think of involving current sources of stem cells...