Thursday, I watched people eat "steak chips," a crispy form of beef jerky that required no cows to die. Our lab-grown meat future is fast approaching, and those leading the charge say that the products they're making are more ethical than eating even a vegetable.
Modern Meadow's steak chips, which are grown in a laboratory using cells that are cultivated from a living cow (they can taken via a punch biopsy) and then allowed to grow in a laboratory, are "much less alive than a vegetable," Oron Catts, director of Australia's SymbioticA, an "artistic biology research lab," said at a synthetic biology conference in New York this week. "The cells are unarranged, you're taking them out of the context in which they were living. They have no sentiency or notion of life, there's no pain, no harm."
Even plants, he says, show response to stimuli that are likely to harm or kill them. The cow muscle cells used to make Steak chips do not.
Catts has spent a lot of time thinking about this. In the lab-grown meat scene, he's an old-timer, maybe the first to look at the future of meat and not see any animals involved. Back in 2003, Catts, an artist more than anything else, made the world's first lab-grown steak, a frog steak that he called "disembodied cuisine."
Reviews for Modern Meadow's steak chips were mixed. I didn't get to try them, but Isha Datar, executive director New Harvest, a nonprofit investing in victimless meat companies, noted that the chips "smelled like food for animals."
"That means it's meaty! It's just the smell," she said, adding that the taste wasn't overly powerful.
"I see beer being brewed or yogurt—the yeast and lactobacillus do not cry out because it's in a tank"
Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, says that its food scientists are running through a slew of different recipes and spices for its steak chips. For this particular version, he said the chips were lightly seasoned to allow the meat itself to stand out.
Making a product that meat-eaters want to eat is the first and most important hurdle. If only vegetarians want it, the company and the whole theory that lab-grown meat can reduce the number of animals slaughtered will have failed, Forgacs said.
"The goal is not replication. We're not making burgers or hot dogs," Forgacs said. "We want it to be recognizably different [than traditional meat] and superior in some ways. If it's identical, you've failed, because it's not likely that you'll initially be cheaper [than existing meat]."
It now just costs a few bucks for other companies to make a lab-grown burger (down from $325,000 just a few years ago), but animal-less meat is still tough to grow in bulk, which is why, at least initially, Modern Meadow is focusing on other types of products.
So, crispy lab-grown beef jerky. Even if you're not a Level 5 Vegan, the idea of meat that's even more ethical than vegetables is compelling. But is it true that lab-grown meat will be less harmful to life than eating a tomato?
It's not the case that cultured meat is totally free of animal products at the moment. Calf blood serum is the best medium to grow cells, which is often a byproduct of the meat industry. Forgacs says Modern Meadow is moving away from using calf serum at all, and Catts says that the entire cell-growth industry is trying to create artificial nutrient mediums simply because calf serum is expensive.
"We've replaced what we use with nonfatal serum taken from animals that don't have to die," Forgacs said. "We're dropping the serum levels and adding in other ingredients the cells need to thrive. It's not impossible to do [without calf serum], but it is a bit painstaking."
Forgacs says the process of making lab-grown meat is more like beer brewing than it is to real meat production: The only "living" things that are being made use of are muscle cells, which are never connected to a nervous system.
"I see beer being brewed or yogurt—the yeast and lactobacillus do not cry out because it's in a tank," he said. "That's our goal, to apply those principles to an animal product. We don't have to industrialize sentient beings."