I’m a Vegetarian—Will I Eat Lab-Grown Meat?

Eschewing meat requires explanation, especially if you were raised an omnivore. Every forkful carries culture and identity in the memory and effort of its preparation. So, on days like Thanksgiving, when vegetarians turn down their family’s lovingly basted golden brown turkey in favor of a Gardein Holiday Roast, a savory loaf of soy protein isolate and vital wheat gluten that comes in a box, the people around them often feel rejected, even judged. Saying no to turkey becomes saying no to tradition, to family. No wonder people turn such baleful eyes on the bloodless lumps of beans and grain brought into their midst.

I don’t like causing suffering. That’s why I stopped eating meat in the first place. Well, that and the fact that cows are farting the climate into an early grave. I didn’t stop eating meat because I don’t like the taste of it. My extended family loves to tell a story about my third Thanksgiving, when my grandfather put a 25-pound bird down in front of me and asked if I thought I could finish it. Apparently I rolled my eyes at him and explained that of course I couldn’t—because there were bones. I remember loving the succulent slices of turkey drowned in gravy and the crisp, buttery skin. I also remember the last time I tried a chicken wing, an old favorite, earlier this year: I loved the buffalo sauce, but biting through the skin and muscle and sinew made slaughterhouse footage flash behind my eyes, and the meat seemed to almost stiffen on my tongue. Heading into the holidays, I wished there was a way to make everyone (including me!) more comfortable. I wondered if it might be lab-grown meat.

Lab-grown meat—also known as cultured meat, in vitro meat, cultivated meat, cell-based meat, or, if you’re a marketer, “clean” meat—is the product of literal factory farming, or cellular agriculture. Animals are still involved, just fewer of them. Scientists take samples of tissue (often stem cells), then add a growth medium (sometimes including fetal bovine serum, which does necessitate killing cows) and some kind of scaffolding (like collagen) for the cells to grow on. NASA has been experimenting with making meat from turkey cells since 2001, hoping to feed astronauts with it. In the years since, the number of companies producing lab-grown poultry, pork, beef, and seafood has expanded to include names like New Harvest, Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, and SuperMeat, many of them Silicon Valley startups that have coaxed oodles of cash from venture capitalists. Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station dined on a 3D-printed steak last month courtesy of Israeli startup Aleph Farms. For the earthbound, though, no lab-grown meat products are currently available to buy at the store. Nobody’s sure if people would buy it if it were.

The most often cited barriers to commercial success are price, which is astronomical, and taste and texture, which are supposedly just OK and best suited to “unstructured” (read: mushy) applications like burgers, sausages, and nuggets. But those problems are likely to be temporary, or at least solvable by massive injections of money. Ultimately, the decision to buy or boycott lab-grown meat will be an ethical one, and I wanted to hear all the arguments.

The ethical case for lab-grown meat is clear, polished to a high sheen by boardroom pitches. Few-to-no animals need be killed to produce it. It can be optimized for maximum human nutrition, like a fortified cereal. Producing meat in this way may reduce its exposure to disease, pesticides, bacteria, and antibiotics. Reducing the global herd may also be good for the environment (a big concern for me). “Red meat has a very big impact on emissions and pollutants, so the theory is that, if you’re raising it in a lab, you don’t need as many resources and you’ll produce fewer emissions,” says Owen Schaefer, who researches the ethics of novel biotechnologies at the National University of Singapore. Then came a blow: “I haven’t seen a very good environmental impact analysis,” Schaefer says. “That claim the startups are making is still speculative.” Schaefer is concerned that the process might create harmful chemical byproducts.

Further arguments against lab-grown meat are more niche. For the average person, there’s an ick factor. “The idea of your food being grown in a lab is inherently off-putting,” Schaefer says. “But people still eat chicken nuggets after watching those really gross videos because they are cheap and tasty and convenient.” (To me, a lab is no yuckier than a factory, if not considerably less so.) For ethicists, lab-grown meat may be morally queasy. “While we will no longer be raising and killing animals in terrible conditions for food—a good thing, to be sure— we will still be the sort of people who would do this if lab-grown meat were not an option,” says Benjamin Bramble, a moral philosopher at the University of Liverpool. “Why is this a problem? Because our being this way is bad for us as well.” I’d add that lab-grown meat, while significantly less cruel, still involves biopsying and sometimes killing animals. Still others, like Russell Prince, a human geographer at Massey University in New Zealand, are concerned about what lab-grown meat might mean for rural agricultural communities, and what artificial scarcity might occur if food becomes a VC-backed Silicon Valley intellectual property.

Would a slice of lab-grown turkey writhe in my mouth the way a slice of a once-live turkey seems to? Probably. Schaefer thinks lab-grown meat is for people who buy standard, factory-farmed meat now, not for vegans and vegetarians, and not even for people concerned about their meat being free range and organic. Lab-grown meat is a middle ground, and, like all compromises, it’s messy. Opposing it aligns you with the conventional meat industry, makes you a Luddite clubbing down machinery during the Industrial Revolution. Eating it aligns you with venture capitalists, Silicon Valley, the idea that science is most valuable when its sellable, and makes you a contemporary Carnegie or Rockefeller. Sorry, family: I’ll be over here with my Gardein Holiday Roast.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More