An In Vitro Beef

Featured Blogger / by Jennifer Jacquet /

Even if meat isn’t murder, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

A meat-eater driving a Prius contributes more to climate change than a vegan driving a Hummer. By now, it is broadly understood that eating less meat would relieve a bit of pressure on our sullied atmosphere by lightening the methane load (by roughly 10 kilowatt hours per day—more than double what you’d save by changing lights to fluorescents—if you eat vegetarian six days a week, according to physicist David MacKay at Cambridge University).

But eating less meat would require sacrifice. It would also require applying the brakes to the increased demand for meat in China, India, and the other developing countries naïvely salivating for crappy (and lethal) American eating habits. Eating less meat might even require regulation.

The marketplace, in its infinite wisdom, would prefer not to alter American meat-eating ways. It is more comfortable keeping and exporting our lifestyle and, on a good day, has hopes of improving its efficiency.

Enter Frankenmeat, or to be politically correct, in-vitro meat, which translates to a bioengineered ground round fresh from the petri dish. Certainly in-vitro meat isn’t any freakier than factory farming, and one can imagine deli customers would prefer the tour of laboratories to the one of slaughterhouses. Laboratory-made meats might also be made with far less energy, which is certainly a plus.

But in-vitro meat does nothing to address the deeper, systemic issues of food production—we should be getting more intimate with our food by growing gardens, eating locally, and getting healthy. The Frankenmeat solution is one-dimensional. It addresses a symptom, but not the problem: We eat too much meat.

Boring, you say.

“Being vegetarian isn’t cool anymore,” a friend recently put it. “I can name so many people who were vegetarian for five years and now eat bacon four times a day.”

As vegetarianism has gained a foothold in urban eateries and elitist supermarkets, a predictable anti-vegetarian backlash has ensued. The hostility toward vegetarianism challenges resounding advice from doctors, nutritionists, not to mention food guru Michael Pollan.

More fashionable, perhaps, is a laboratory-made meat. It might relieve the guilt of the scientifically minded and environmentally aware, but beyond that, its advantages are as-yet unclear: because let’s face it, a centralized, high-tech model of food production is not likely to solve wholesale hunger issues, nor is it likely to appeal to the “down home cookin’” contingent. In-vitro meat won’t cure obesity. And it won’t change people’s nutritional needs. Eating plants is not just better for the environment. It is, quite simply, better for you.

Originally published August 31, 2009

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