Should we welcome synthetic meat?

petri-dish-meat-aurich-lawson-ars-technica1The cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals were two of the breakthrough technologies for our species. They marked the move from hunter-gatherers to settled and nomadic communities. Other breakthroughs – the bucket and the plow, for example, which enabled farmers to produce surplus, and thus for some people to be something other than farmers – depended on prior cultivation and domestication. But could technology have reached a point where, in a generation or so, we won’t need farming anymore?

This would not be the wrench that it would have been in the fairly recent past. Agriculture and domestic service were among the biggest employers in advanced economies just a century ago and are now tiny. Even within the last 30-40 years we have seen massive mechanization that has dramatically reduced employment in agriculture. If I may indulge you with an anecdote from the village of my upbringing: the village farm was run by a couple who employed three or four full-time laborers and other seasonal laborers who had other work as handymen and builders. Thirty years later the farmers were in their eighties and running the farm on their own. They did that until the husband died. Agriculture is just not as labor-intensive as it was.

But could it be that the next generation of farmers will go to work in a laboratory and wear white coats rather than overalls? Could our farms be built in Manhattan’s skyscrapers?

Synthetic or in vitro (test tube) meat is still prohibitively expensive. The taste and texture can be altered. It can be produced from a few stem cells and growth hormones. While the original seed cells are derived from animals, some claim that as much as 50,000 tons of meat can be produced from just ten pork muscle cells. Vegetarian groups claim the product is not vegetarian because it is produced from animal cells. But 50,000 tons of vegetables will contain far more than ten animal (insect) cells.

Fairly soon, synthetic meat will be cheaper than farmed meat. It will therefore not be long before it is included in products such as pies and sausages which do not contain identifiable animal parts. For some generations there will remain a market for meat served on the bone, which synthetic meat, at present, cannot be. But beef products served on the bone went dramatically out of fashion after the BSE (mad cow disease) scare.

From an environmental point of view, farming animals is inefficient. It takes at least ten pounds of vegetable protein to produce a pound of beef. Chicken is more efficient – about three to one – but concerns over cruelty are often higher with chickens, which are sometimes kept in horrifically confining conditions. Land use and energy consumption are likely to be much lower with in vitro meat. Cost, environmental and animal welfare concerns are all likely to be pushing people in the same direction.

But what of ethics? Campaigners are already calling in vitro meat “frankenfood”. To your columnist the calculus is simple. It takes animal suffering out of the food chain and is therefore to be welcomed. But your columnist is not the average person, has not eaten meat in over 20 years, and will welcome the change theoretically rather than economically. I don’t miss meat, and will not start eating it just because a new production method is available.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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