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pigs, pork and petri dishes

January 19, 2010

In a recent article, “Scientists turn stem cells into pork,”  AP medical writer, Maria Chang, describes some new research that may make factory farming a thing of the past:

(AP) – “Call it pork in a petri dish – a technique to turn pig stem cells into strips of meat that scientists say could one day offer a green alternative to raising livestock, help alleviate world hunger, and save some pigs their bacon.”

And so we have it: there is technology that can potentially generate the amount of “meat” from one pig that it currently takes a million slaughtered pigs to produce. (I’ll call this “in vitro” meat, though I don’t know there is a universal term for it yet). Factory farming causes the greatest loss of life to animals because of the huge numbers of animals that are victims of this system. Replacing rotting flesh with Petri dish cells seems like a no-brainer win for the animals. PETA has offered $1 million to the first person who can develop in vitro meat and get it into the market place by 2012.

It’s that second part, perfecting in vitro meat so that people will actually buy it that is the last hurdle. Given how many animal lives could be saved by in vitro meat shouldn’t all of us animal rights activists be shifting our attention to the endeavor of selling in vitro meat to a public audience? And if we shifted our focus we would likely not meet as much resistance as we currently do. Science would support us and the public loves science. Scientists are envisioning miracle foods, as one scientist interviewed by Chang explains: “You could possibly design a hamburger that prevents heart attacks instead of causing them.”

As utopian as in vitro meat might sound in terms of saving millions of animal lives, feeding starving populations and preventing the extreme environmental degradation associated with factory farming, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with this technology. I certainly am not going to start an anti in vitro meat campaign (though I am sure there are reasons to, like unforeseen health consequences and reliance on technology for food security) simply for the reason that animal lives are saved and the environment is protected, but I just can’t seem to really get behind it.

First, this seems like a supremely complicated and expensive way to deal with the problems associated with eating animal flesh at the rate the Western world does: chronic disease, cancer, public health epidemics (e-coli, mad cow disease), environmental degradation, animal cruelty. Why go through all this trouble when the clear, easy, inexpensive and side-effect free approach is to promote vegetarian and vegan diets? If, as a society, we stop torturing, slaughtering and binging on animals we will have done the number one thing we could do to reduce: 1. The major health epidemics in the west (heart disease, diabetes, obesity); 2. The needless suffering and slaughter of non-human animals and; 3. Our contributions to climate change (beef production in the US alone is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide). Oh, and we will also have more farmable land to grow food for human populations—in fact, the US alone could produce enough calories in food to feed the world’s starving populations. (If we could kick Monsanto out of business and practice sustainable farming, we’d really have world hunger on lock down!)

I also think that there is something very disturbing in the reasoning behind producing “super-food” but not rejecting the idea of meat. Meat is the rotting flesh of murdered animals. Meat is proof that we are a cruel culture that forgot how to love and value life. Meat is proof that we accept oppression and violence. What would we say if a proposed solution to rape was to provide punching bags shaped like women and disembodied vaginas for men to destroy and beat on and violate? Would we accept the ideology of violence against women if we could reduce the symptoms associated with it? I don’t think so. And is that not what we are doing with in vitro meat? Those fighting for animal rights can’t forget that the key to our movement in the long run is dismantling the idea that non-human animals are objects and property for human use and consumption. If we do, not only will other abuses toward animals continue (experimentation on animals, circuses, zoos and fur, to name a few), but the next time animal bodies can be exploited for human goals, they will be.

So, to wrap up: in vitro meat is kind of creepy. Animal liberationists may want to get behind it (or at least not reject it) for the immediate benefits it has for the animals, but don’t stop your liberation work to push for in vitro meat—the idea that animals are ours to use is still alive and well and we need to keep fighting.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kelly permalink
    January 20, 2010 10:23 am

    Squick and utilitarian arguments about the healthiness of meat aside… In the short term? Certainly a continued killing of animals (for large tissue samples, checks on the genetic integrity of cell lines, etc.), though at a decreasing rate as the efficiency of the process improves. In the long term? Probably an elimination of killing altogether in meat production, as small cell samples need only be taken occasionally from free-roaming animals, and as most meat cell lines are the products of either heavy genetic modification or DNA assembly from scratch. The technology will never be vegan, but it will eventually greatly reduce, and perhaps eliminate, the loss of animal life in meat production.

    As a separate concern, then, what about the culture? Who knows? That’s a long way off. For some, maybe they’ll be like the people of “Star Trek” who get all their animal products instantaneously from molecular replicators.… See More
    Starting at 2:17, “She handled real meat?? She touched it and cut it??”

    For others, maybe they’ll be like the customers of the “Long Pig” fast food chain in “Transmetropolitan”, or the Glig in Larry Niven’s “Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing!” Whole cloned bodies (without brains or spines) grown in “bastard farms” for the dinnertable, and little kids eating cloned human drumsticks (skin, toes, and all) on streetcorners. Food so removed from actual sentient beings that the meanings they’ll attach to “meat” will be incomprehensible to us today.

  2. Kelly permalink
    January 20, 2010 12:27 pm

    Also, the “meat facilitates violence” hypothesis is plausible in the present day, certainly in light of the history summarized in “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, but it cannot account for technological developments and the centuries of accommodation to them that are to come. If the meat on the dinnertables of future people universally comes from sources no more sentient than plants, then how confidently can we predict the cultural repertoire with which they will assign meaning to “meat”?

    Recent experiments have been growing animal cells on scaffolding like algae. Imagine a version of this technology centuries in the future. The killing of animals for food has been completely eliminated because it is hopelessly obsolete. Factory complexes no longer cage and slaughter animals, but instead cultivate huge flesh vines, growing fruit-like on which are headless bodies of every sort of animal species, and others never seen in nature, like hothouse tomatoes.

    Is this horrifying to our culturally-influenced emotional sensibilities, yours AND mine? Yes. (If I were thrown like Buck Rogers into this future, I don’t know if I could ever get used to it.) Would it, though, be enacting our values by ending the suffering of sentients in the production of meat? Absolutely.

    I also suspect that this technological arc will be unsettling to committed vegans for a related reason. It anticipates that veganism is a contemporary social and technological artifact, and that one day, if it is successful in promoting a minimal respect for sentient life, veganism could be obsolete. If someday, food of all kinds, including meat, comes from nonsentient sources, “meat” has no more violent or gendered valence than “tomato”, and a culture regards the exploitation, torture, or killing of sentients as cruel and barbaric, then what exploitation would veganism be preventing? What moral high ground would it represent?

  3. Michele permalink
    January 20, 2010 4:39 pm

    I don’t have anything super-intelligent to add, but my immediate feelings are:
    1) “in vitro” meat seems equally as creepy as the “real” thing – after all, you still are consuming an animal product (though, at least animals aren’t tortured and slaughtered?) this goes against the whole notion of eating pure or unprocessed foods, and
    2) Kelly, the sci-fi futuristic component you introduced sent shivers of horror through me. i will likely have nightmares about “huge flesh vines” and “headless bodies of every sort of animal species.” yuck and ugh.
    3) carol, adore the blog – are you enjoying it? or, is it another (if productive) form of procrastination? 😉

  4. Peter Kirwan permalink
    January 21, 2010 1:57 am

    1) I’m very much looking forward to this development and might buy this stuff, would need to think through the stem cell issue though.

    2) okay this is simply a false analogy ” What would we say if a proposed solution to rape was to provide punching bags shaped like women and disembodied vaginas for men to destroy and beat on and violate?”

    It’s false because what is being mimicked in the in vitro meat case is a product of abuse not the abuse itself. A closer analogy (incidentally possibly creepier): lets say someone likes to drink the tears of real abused women (he likes the taste lets say) and then we manage to produce an identical liquid in vitro the taste of which is also appealing to him.

    furthermore EVEN if the analogy did hold (which as i said it straightforwardly doesn’t) then it would seem that the fake SOY chicken pieces in my freezer are analogous to slightly less realistic (compared to the ones you say are analogous to in vitro meat) women shaped punching bags/disemodied vaginas that I “destroy and beat on and violate?”. That seems like a reductio ad absurdum to me.

    Of course, in reality, this analogy doesn’t hold for them same reason your original one doesn’t hold

    3) The costs of something this early on in its development are always going to be high, even so high as to make it counter productive (i imagine this was possibly the case with many recycling processes when it was small scale). Over time however the manufacturing process will (probably) get more efficient and cost less both in terms of money and resources.

  5. Peter Kirwan permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:09 am

    In response to Michelle

    I’m not sure if you were offering the fact you find it creepy as something of moral relevance. If you were you would need to say a lot more to explain why your creepdar is morally relevant while the creepdar of someone who finds gay sex (or if you happen to agree with such a person insert anything you find morally permissable) creepy is not morally relevant.

    • Michele permalink
      January 21, 2010 4:07 am

      peter –
      perhaps i was quick to post – my comment was more a response to than an engagement in the debate. i think this space allows for that, but i do get your point about moral relevance.

      as a person who has a hard time eating animals, and not as a full-fledged animal rights activist, i am struggling to wrap my head around the notion of meat that doesn’t involve an animal’s death, but that’s my problem, not yours. would i eat in vitro meat? probably not. would i act to prevent its availability to others? definitely not. first, because as carol pointed out, it’s obviously a better option for the animals, and additionally because i don’t expect others to think and act as i do.

  6. Peter Kirwan permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:17 am

    in response to Kelly

    “Would it, though, be enacting our values by ending the suffering of sentients in the production of meat? Absolutely.”

    Amen to that.

    i usually don’t get into debates on the internet but frankly I really worry that knee jerk responses to in vitro meat by Animal Rights advocates will be offered up as the final proof that we are an irrational little cult and so impede sympathy for the cause and, as a result, progress.

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