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THE END OF THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE?: Lab meat offers a tantalizing taste of the future, but a hard ‘cell’ for vegans


The technology has the potential to save billions of animals’ lives, which can only be a good thing. But as a vegan I wouldn’t want to eat meat of any kind as I don’t regard animals as a commodity.”

MARK SMITH: It is groundbreaking, unusual, and it might change the world – but even with global companies like Nestle now wanting a slice of the non-meaty, lab-grown pie, the question remains: would you eat it? Some people expected it to be softer. Others thought it was intense but not that juicy. And one person said he missed the fatty bits. All in all, the reviews for the world’s first hamburger grown in a laboratory, rather than taken directly from a real-life cow, were mixed…

But it was definitely the start of something and the consequences of that first tasting of a lab-grown burger in London in 2013 are still emerging. At the time, meat grown by scientists from cells taken from a live cow seemed extraordinary and, to some people, disturbing and unpleasant. There was also no indication at the time when the burgers might leave the lab and end up on people’s plates…

The number of people adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is growing. Carnivores are also becoming more likely to limit their consumption of animal products because of their concern for the environment – and what that means is that the market for alternatives to real meat is growing. Companies like Nestle want a slice of the non-meaty pie…

For Nestle, the latest company to enter the field, it is the environment that is apparently its primary motivation. The company says its work is being carried out at its Institute of Material Sciences in Lausanne and the hope is that the technologies being developed there can lead to more environmentally-friendly products.

The head of the institute, Reinhard Behringer, says the aim is a lower environmental impact. “For many years,” he says, “we have been investing in our protein expertise and the development of proprietary technologies for plant-based meat alternatives, allowing us to continuously expand our wide range of products with a lower environmental impact.

“To complement these efforts, we’re also exploring technologies that could lead to animal-friendly alternatives that are nutritious, sustainable, and close to meat in terms of taste, flavour, and texture.

“We are excited to understand their potential”… One of the arguments of the proponents of cultured meat is that you require much less land and water and livestock to produce their product. You also reduce the damaging by-products of beef farming: the waste that the cows produce as well as all the farting they do. It is estimated that, from a single tissue sample from a single cow, you could make 80,000 lab burgers…

The obvious next question is: will people buy it? Would vegans and vegetarians be prepared to eat meat grown in a lab if it could be shown that no animal had suffered? And what will the meat-eaters do? Brought up on the idea that meat comes from an animal in a field (or – just as likely these days – an animal in a windowless factory), would they embrace the idea of meat developed in a lab instead? The surveys show that most consumers would at least be prepared to try it, but the issues are complicated.

Perhaps a good person to ask would be a vegan – and especially a vegan with a PhD in molecular biology. Dr Justine Butler is also a senior researcher and writer at the campaigning vegan charity Viva! and when asked if she would ever try a “cultured burger”, the answer is definitely no.

“The technology has the potential to save billions of animals’ lives, which can only be a good thing,” she says. “But as a vegan I wouldn’t want to eat meat of any kind as I don’t regard animals as a commodity.” Her concerns, she says, focus on the idea of an animal as a product but she is also worried that the process to remove the cells could be painful and cruel for the animal…

For vegans like Dr Butler, the research is heading in the right direction but they all say they won’t be trying it themselves, which leaves the tricky question of who exactly will eat a lab burger. Not all vegans feel the same way – indeed, one of the most famous vegans of all, the philosopher and author of Animal Liberation Peter Singer, has said he would eat a lab burger.

“My view,” he wrote in The Guardian, “is being a vegetarian or vegan is not an end in itself but a means towards reducing both human and animal suffering, and leaving a habitable planet to future generations … if in vitro meat becomes commercially available, I will be pleased to try it.” But if many vegans and veggies remain resistant, most of the market for lab meat would come from so-called flexitarians i.e. consumers who are concerned about the environment but still want to eat meat. SOURCE…


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