Exploring the Limits of Culinary (and Scientific and Legal and Economic) Curiosity

Would you eat meat that was created in a test-tube? Americans already eat meat that is hyper-processed and chemically enhanced. Many around the world likewise eat vegetables which have been heavily genetically modified. Is laboratory-produced meat a step too far however? That is the central question of many interesting ones being posed by Michael Specter in this week's edition of The New Yorker in an article entitled 'Test-Tube Burgers' Although the entire article is only available to subscribers, the following bits from the abstract should provide enough fodder for the discussion below:

"'Why can’t we grow meat outside of the body? Make it in a laboratory, as we make so many other things.' In-vitro meat can be made by placing a few cells in a nutrient mixture that helps them proliferate. As the cells begin to grow together, forming muscle tissue, they are attached to a biodegradable scaffold. There the tissue can be stretched and molded into food, which could, in theory, be sold, cooked, and consumed like any processed meat...A new discipline, propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists, has emerged in both Europe and the U.S.

Lab-grown meat raises powerful questions about what most people see as the boundaries of nature and the basic definitions of life. Yet our patterns of meat consumption have become increasingly dangerous for both individuals and the planet. The global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty per cent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Cattle consume nearly ten per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty per cent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat. The consequences of eating meat, and our increasing reliance on factory farms, are almost as disturbing for human health."

So, mass consumption of meat has health consequences for both humanity and the earth. Per capita consumption is only expected to increase as the middle classes of today's developing countries rise and become the next generation's consumption kings. Clearly, if less space and resources were devoted to growing meat, it would benefit everyone. This particular solution remains some way off however. While the question of fake meat is a nascent and very experimental one, there are nonetheless interesting law and economics questions that can be asked, and which will need to be answered, before any readers out there see 'test-tube burgers', sausages or even hot dogs.

On the legal front, could such a product gain (in the US) FDA approval? It might be a lighter lift in some other jurisdictions desperate for quality protein sources for citizens. However, in much of the developed world, getting approval for food products can prove to be a tricky endeavor. Even assuming agency approval however, an even tougher hurdle could be the farm lobby. The potential for fake meat is, no doubt, creating some strange bedfellows (such as environmentalists and PETA with avowed meat lovers) but the conventional thinking would be that Big Meat wouldn't take too kindly to competition. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that even after huge capital outlays and agency approval, a bill could be passed outlawing it.

The economics questions are as interesting if not more so. First off, the development costs of test-tube meat products are currently very restrictive. Scientists can generate muscle cell growth, the basis for any potential end product, fairly easily. However, even getting to this stage does not produce a commercially viable result; getting past this stage to a palatable meat product is even less cost efficient. Even if scale issues could be worked out, there is the not insignificant problem of market demand. In other words, would people buy the stuff even if it were cheaper than real, farm-raised meat from an animal. Maybe environmentalists. Maybe the animal friendly who nonetheless get a taste for red meat on occasion. But most certainly not the general population. This is doubly true so long as potential costs, and therefore prices, were higher than the real-alternative.  

Like so many of the promises of the green revolution, fake meat remains some distance, for many reasons, from replacing the current alternative. Just like solar cannot replace coal, oil and nuclear, just like electric cars have not completely caught on, just like so many other things, there are many practical and psychological hurdles which would have to be jumped before fake meat had any perceptible impact on the world. However, out of at the least a sense of curiosity, here's hoping that the scientists can get this one right. Blawgconomics would love to host a wine, cheese and fake cured meats party for our readers to celebrate our continued existence at some point in the future...20 years has a nice ring to it, don't you think? 


  1. Anonymous18/5/11 17:15

    I think this is an instance where science is so far ahead of the legislature that I'm not sure the FDA would know how or why to raise an objection to test-tube meat.

    But more interesting, to me, are the ethics of growing part of an animal. Is it still an animal? Does a steak growing in a test tube need to be treated humanely? Is it alive?

    And what about humans? Growing a steak means we could presumably grow other organs in test tubes someday. If we grow a human heart in a tube, is it a person? Does it have rights? I think most of us would say just one organ, grown in a tube, isn't a person (except maybe a brain). But what if we put some of these organs together; at what point is the "person" complete enough to count as a human being?

    Honestly, sometimes I wish science would just sit on its hands and let our moral philosophy catch up.

  2. Thanks for reading and thanks for the interesting thoughts.

    I believe that, on a purely moral philosophy line of thinking, that some of the problems noted above would have to be countered with the ethics of letting people starve and/or live in a malnourished state in a situation where alternatives were available. Taking it outside that realm, I think that economists (at least those in the 'mainstream') might have something to say about 'right and wrong' when it comes to the rights of animals v. humans.

    Finally, a thought on the idea that science sometimes gets too far ahead of philosophy...I think that although 'science' does indeed get ahead of itself at times, I fear that if the alternative was for science and technology to always be waiting for the learned philosophers among us to decide the correct path that we would most likely still be counting with the abacus.

  3. Anonymous19/5/11 11:42

    Josh - all good points. And a really interesting post.

    I think that this is an extension of the same debates we have about abortion rights and about stem cells: when does life begin? How do we define it? We can all be empathetic, moral persons, but if we come to different conclusions about what life is, our subsequent decisions will diverge accordingly.

    Is meat in a test tube an animal? If so, it must be treated according to the same standards as other animals. If not, what is it? Those are tough questions, and I fear they'll be posed to the FDA before the rest of us have a chance to get our (respective) heads around them.

  4. Once again, good points...and not to steal the last word, but your second comment reminded me of something from the article about the potential use of stem cells in this process, basically that they probably going to be a key ingredient in making fake meat viable on a mass production basis due to their ability to rapidly replicate. If anything, this perhaps makes your points doubly relevant.

    Thanks again-