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Monday, June 04, 2007

A prize pig in the petri dish?

Dutch scientists are engaged in the very science fiction sounding pursuit of trying to grow "artificial" pork meat in the laboratory. Interestingly, they are using arguments of sustainability in order to justify their endeavor.

I'll get into more details about that, but first it raised a few dietary questions in my inquiring albeit twisted mind ...

Can a vegetarian eat the pork produced? Technically, no animals will be harmed in the process, but it's still animal cell tissue. Certainly the rule "I won't eat anything with a mother" would have to be revised.

Would there be artificial-pig judging contests to take the place of the eventually obsolete state fairs? I don't want to imagine what might win the blue ribbon in a comparison of muscle cell growths. Charlotte certainly wouldn't be spinning any webs to celebrate the contents of the petri dishes.

Is it the first step in the eventual development of Star-Trek like replicators that make food of any kind materialize upon request? Maybe not, but it's a fun thought for all of us geeks to ponder.

More seriously, there's always a tendency to rush food products to the market without proper consideration of their impact on the environment and human health. To properly understand these impacts, the products need to be studied over longer periods of time than the market forces are willing to accept. That's been the case with genetically modified crops, and their affects on biodiversity and health are still being studied (Answers.com has a summary of the various GM food controversies). There's definitely a need to act quickly to address the problem of feeding a growing global population in the midst of various ecological crises and strains, but there's also the danger of unleashing new problems by choosing the wrong solutions. Profit can't be the driving decision-maker on these issues, but that's what we'll be faced with as long as our governments remain the playgrounds of corporate bullies.

Will people eat it? The target market is likely to be developing nations, and starving people usually aren't very picky about what they eat, even if there are serious health implications. It's a scenario that raises the possibility of dual food supplies: on one end, organic farmed meat and vegetables for the more health-conscious, wealthy nations who can afford it; on the other, artificially produced foods for the billions of others concerned with mere survival. It raises images of Soylent Green, and we certainly don't want to head down that dystopic road.

One of the researchers, when asked about possible public resistance to artificial meat, remarks about our current food supply, "some people might not realize that some part of the meat they eat is artificial." That actually illustrates the need to be very careful about how the food we eat is produced. The current system is extremely flawed, with its mistreatment of the animals and propensity for extensive environmental contamination (see the Wikipedia article on Intensive pig farming). Our goal shouldn't be to replace it with a less flawed system, but with a system that works and is beneficial to our health and world.

Here is an excerpt from the Reuters story:
Dutch try to grow enviro-friendly meat in lab
By Reed Stevenson

UTRECHT, The Netherlands (Reuters) - Dutch researchers are trying to grow pork meat in a laboratory with the goal of feeding millions without the need to raise and slaughter animals.

"We're trying to make meat without having to kill animals," Bernard Roelen, a veterinary science professor at Utrecht University, said in an interview.

Although it is in its early stages, the idea is to replace harvesting meat from livestock with a process that eliminates the need for animal feed, transport, land use and the methane expelled by animals, which all hurt the environment, he said.

Read the full article
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