From: Steven J. Moss, San Francisco Community Power
Published December 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Meat Wall

You walk into a restaurant, the waiter escorts you to a wall of artificial meat and asks you to pick which square you want for dinner. Or maybe you grow your own meat at home, choosing from different flavor tablets to create sheets that taste like chicken, beef, or pork, ready to slide into your toaster oven for a quick meal. It may sound far-fetched, but scientists are actively working to find ways to easily produce fake meat. And with China’s demand for meat expected to double every decade, there will almost certainly be market for such a product.


The idea has its attractions. Livestock operations are a substantial pollution source, fouling the water and land. Cattle ranches continue to replace rain forest and other natural areas throughout South America. The world’s wild fish population is rapidly being depleted. And the intensive production of cows and chickens may contribute to emerging outbreaks of deadly human diseases, such as mad cow and avian flu. Not to mention the wide scale suffering imposed on animals destined for the oven. Artificial meat, cultured from single cells and produced in large quantities, could reduce the afflictions caused by the international meat industrial complex.


But artificial meat is not without its “ick” factor. The very idea of sheets of cells growing into something akin to meat is a bit creepy, in an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” kind of way. Of course a visit to a local slaughter house or sausage factory may be no less iky, and considerably more bloody.


Chances are, given the rapidly rising demand for meat, and the cleverness of our scientists, we’ll soon enough be confronted with the opportunity to build animal-less meat factories. When the time comes we’ll want to do our due diligence over the potential environmental consequences of artificial meat ranching. Fish farming, another popular technology that’s emerged over the past few decades, has turned into a mixed blessing. While it’s improved fish supplies, taking some pressure off wild species, it’s also created substantial amounts of land and water pollution, and threatens genetic diversity.


Perhaps more importantly, the emergence of an artificial meat market could have profound effects on our souls. We’ve transitioned from hunters and gatherers in a world dominated by wild animals; to domestic animal tenders surrounded by cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens; to a plastic wrap world in which unidentifiable animal parts are delivered to us in cardboard boxes at fast food restaurants. Artificial meat, if it proves popular, could usher in the next phase, completely severing our ties to the animal kingdom. That might be a good thing, leading to pressure to protect greater amounts of natural habitat in which other species can thrive. Or it could be the next step towards creating a completely artificial world, in which rivers and streams have been turned into pipelines and faucets, reality is on television, and food is a flavored pellet.


Of course before we get to this next fork in the road, scientists need to figure out how to get artificial meat to taste something like the real thing. The main barrier seems to be getting the texture right, with the appropriate mix of fat and muscle. Doing so requires that the artificial meat gets some exercise. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what that might look like.


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Steven J. Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.


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