The Paranoid Guide to Better Living: Synthetic Meat

Would you eat a steak made in the lab? 

And now your host, Paranoia.

With summer upon us, many families are stocking up on charcoal, propane, and of course — meat. While there are a few vegans and other folk out there who think tossing tofu patties on the grill counts as anything other than burning Styrofoam, we’re only talking about meat here. We’re talking about bloody, marbled with animal fat and delicious meat. Specifically, we’re talking about beef. Well, we’re about to.

For those of you about to grill I have some disheartening news that you probably won’t care about. According to a USDA economist “The U.S. cattle and calf herd is at its lowest level since 1952 and cattle producers have been hard hit by poor pasture conditions, a poor hay crop, drought in the Southern Plains and late freezing weather”. Which means what? It means that the price of beef is going up for the summer, and it’s all because of global warming. Well, that might be an assumption, but based on that statement from the USDA weather has something to do with it.

So with the price of beef on the incline, what are all the meat eaters supposed to do? Either cough up the extra coin for that New York Strip, or go vegan right? Well, that second one isn’t an option. We have teeth made for cutting meat, and that’s all the evidence I need to know where my food loyalties lie. Plus, what else are cows good for if not eating? Of course, there may soon be a third option — synthetic meat.

There are already a handful of companies on the cusp of bringing synthetic meat to market, but first we need to understand what the hell this lab rat meat is. According to How Stuff Works, synthetic meat is created by taking some muscle cells from a living animal such as a cow or chicken and using it to create new clusters of tissue that can be consumed like you would a store bought steak. One of the leading companies in this field, Modern Meadow (run by former University of Missouri tissue engineering specialist Gabor Forgacs) is pretty darn close to engineering edible meat and synthetic leather.

For Modern Meadow though, the problem isn’t just the rising cost of meat — it’s the environmental impact of cultivating meat. There are some cute stats on their homepage illustrating this, but they don’t even mention the environmental impact of not routinely disposing of livestock that are bred for the purposes of consumption. I’m not suggesting that if left alone cattle will take over the world, but I don’t think our ozone needs any more methane output. While that is hyperbole, they do have a point when it comes to controlling disease outbreaks in food products, something that is a direct result of how livestock is handled.

Growing meat in a lab isn’t as simple as mashing together some stem cells and tossing them in a Ziploc bag. First you have to trick the cells into growing into meat and not something else, like the Thing, then add a bunch of other junk like fuels, salts, minerals, hormones and so on. Not only that, but replicating certain cuts of meat like a T-bone or Porterhouse as this article on points out, will be one hell of a serious challenge. Modern Meadow plans on using a 3D printer to build out the specific designs of certain cuts of meat, but will you eat it if it doesn’t taste and look the same as real meat?

While we happily consume the questionable meat served by many fast food restaurants, we balk at the prospect of eating fake meat. While the protein content might be the easiest thing to replicate, the taste, texture and all the things that make tofu disgusting to meat eaters will be harder to copy. Yet, the word fake can be a bit misleading. This would be real meat, just grown in a lab. Like a clone. Though even knowing that, I’d have to ask again — will we be willing to eat it?

“We expect it will first appeal to culinary early-adopted consumers, and the segment of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons,” said Modern Meadow in a proposal for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. So basically, they are hoping that the quality assurance department — the testers — the hipsters latch on to the concept and determine the social and economic viability. In that - taste might not matter. It’ll be something new, something hip and good for the environment. Those selling points might be enough. Oh, there is one more selling point.

Insects could become our next major food source. Aside from the rising costs of meat, the rising population (to hit nine billion in the next three decades or so, with a billion starving right now) will destroy the environment searching for viable food sources. Eating insects at that point would not only be a rational and nutrient rich solution, but one that would be good for the environment as well. So assuming that scenario, wouldn’t you rather have some lab grown meat than a handful of grilled crickets? It’s certainly something to consider, at least for the next generation of omnivores. Thankfully, the people are already prepared with their opinions on the subject.

“Of course we will…if it is cheaper. Look at labels of what you eat today. How much of what you already eat came from a lab?” — @tmoney941
“Sure, I’d like some beef that looks like calamari and tastes like paper.” — @tombatron
“I eat ‘meat’ at Taco Bell. Does that count?” — @ahockley
“None for me, thanks. ‘Formed’ meat has been around forever. And vegan ‘meat’. But PURELY synthetic? No thanks.” — @chrisbrogan
“I’ll try anything once.. Certainly sounds scary, but I’d for sure try it! — @chefbillyparisi
“By the time they perfect the process for taste and texture, if they ever do, I’ll be so old. Plus, you never know what side effects these things have. Not worth it to me. Of course, I’m an unapologetic omnivore.” — @jennywilliams
“Either you commit to eating real meat or don’t eat meat. No synthetic for me.” — @zotzmein
“For me, the soy-based ‘Veggie’ meat is ‘synthetic.’ I’ve tried, and not enjoyed. I love meat.” — @therockfather
“I wouldn’t want to be a tester, but, assuming they sorted taste/ texture/not-made-of-petroleum, yeah I would.” — @jbj
“Probably yes. Mostly because the choice will eventually come down to lab meat or insects and lab meat seems less gross. " — @datavortex

Thankfully we don’t have to worry about synthetic meat making its way to the grocer right now, as one hamburger costs about $320,000 to produce at the moment. Clearly, that’s a big uptick in what you are paying for a burger now. Hell, the most expensive restaurant burger currently on the market is only $5,000. Pretty sure you could never charge that much for a tofu burger. While we might end up eating insects before synthetic meat can muster up to our high taste standards, that’s something for the next generation to stress out about. For now, I’ll stick to ground chuck that I know came from the possibly brutal death of an animal that exists only to end up slathered in A-1 sauce. Paranoia out.

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