Lab-created meats spur new ethics questions, concerns

Are you really going to eat that? This is a common question asked today as many become more conscious about what they consume and attempt to eat more healthily. So what does a well-balanced meal look like? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this includes 5.5 ounces of protein, which many accomplish by consuming meat. (USDA, ChooseMyPlate.gov, 2011) However, eating meat daily may not always be the best option and usually, we consume too much. The average American consumes 224 pounds of meat every year, which equates to 3,584 ounces, or 9.82 ounces daily. (Seattle Times, “Finding ‘meatless’ meat for a world of cities,” 2.25.13) Many in the Vassar community have already committed to eating less meat through the Meatless Monday campaign, co-sponsored by the Office of Health Education and the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition.

Along with the over-consumption of meat, there is also the issue of the amount of animals that are being raised simply for meat production. Globally, meat for today’s 7 billion people requires 60 billion land animals. We must also consider the food, water, and land needed as well as the pollution emitted by the meat industry in production along with the animals themselves. With issues popping up left and right in the meat industry from animal care to drug and chemical usage, many ask what other alternatives are available for those who simply cannot give up meat and become vegetarians or vegans.

This raises the following question: “would you be willing to try meat made in a petri dish?”

Modern Meadow, a biotech startup located in Brooklyn, is in the works of formulating meat without raising, slaughtering, and transporting animals. The meat is still technically an animal product, for it is engineered through animal muscle. (Modern Meadow, Solutions, 2014)

Andras Forgacs, Modern Meadow’s CEO, has termed the company’s new development as “cultured meat” which is technically animal protein grown in a lab. The meat is still technically not vegan or even vegetarian, for its building blocks are still originate from a living animal.

Forgacs has explained to Popular Science the company’s process: You take cells from an animal, a cow for example, without actually harming the cow (usually with a small biopsy). Next, you take the cells and isolate the muscle cells. You can then grow them in a cell-cultured medium. (“Should beef come from a petri dish?,” 1.23.15)

What is interesting about the newly cultured meat is that it appears to still be years before it will become available on the market, and yet, many are already starting to debate the pros and cons of this new-engineered product.

The debate on petri-dish meat is hitting the media just months after New York Times columnist Amy Harmon spoke at Vassar in October as the Urban Research Summer Institute (URSI) keynote speaker. Harmon discussed her controversial work investigating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with her address: “Amy’s Adventures in GMO-land: A New York Times Reporter Explores the Rift Between Public Perception and Scientific Consensus in the Topsy-Turvy Debate over Biotechnology in Agriculture.” Throughout the talk, Harmon received a lot of mixed reactions from the Vassar community and I myself was left feeling confused about food.

GMOs have been proposed as a solution to produce more food that we will soon need very much. With the United Nations estimating that we will need to grow 70 percent more food by 2050 for our growing population, GMOs appear to be a good option given their ability to improve crop yields. Another benefit is that nutrients in GMOs can be higher than in naturally grown and produced plants, such as in golden rice (a GMO) as opposed to natural white rice.(IFL Science, “What You Need To Know About Genetically Modified Organisms,” 8.24.14)

However, not everyone is on board with the idea of eating GMOs. There are a lot of unknowns regarding the consequences of GMOs such as the production of new allergens, or how GMOs may affect one’s metabolism or growth rate. Along with these unknowns, there has also been the issue of labeling. Does the food packaging need to state that it is a GMO? As of now, only two states appear to require GMO Labeling (Maine and Connecticut). But even with labeling what does GMO mean?! There are lots of ways to modify an organism. (IFL Science, What You Need To Know About Genetically Modified Organisms, 8.24.14).

So with a lot of controversy surrounding GMOs, it is no surprise that debates have already started around Modern Meadows and their cultured meat. The meat industry has a lot of issues. It’s expensive, dirty, and eradicates animals for starters. But is petri-dish meat the answer? Cultured meat is clearly not the answer to all our meat problems, but it could be a step in the right direction. After all the method is claimed to have the potential of requiring 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water, 96 percent less carbon emissions and 45 percent less energy demand than standard farming and slaughtering (Seattle Times, “Finding ‘meatless’ meat for a world of cities,” 2.25.13).

While I clearly see the benefits in creating meat, I still have a lot of questions that I can’t find the answers to, such as: Is this meat actually safe? Does it taste good? How much is it going to cost? Do I feel comfortable eating meat created in a lab? These questions are only the beginning of the new engineering method.

Modern Meadows may be getting a lot of buzz, but cultured meat won’t be something we have to officially decide upon for a while. And in that time, hopefully we will get a lot of questions answered.

 

—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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