I always have an eye out for future trends, especially if we’re closing in on stuff I read about in science fiction when I was a kid. I’m a little disappointed we haven’t achieved interplanetary travel by the year 2001 like Stanley Kubrik promised in his adaptation of Clarke’s novel. Though we’re still stuck tossing expensive tin cans into orbit, we have a better record with modifying the food chain. Ever since Frederick Pole introduced the concept of cow-less beef in his fifties sci-fi novel, The Space Merchants, scientists have doggedly pursued the holy grail of future food … synthetic meat. I’m just glad they’re not investigating the Jetson’s dietary plan of everything in a pill.
In college, I mistakenly thought we’d crossed that technological bridge of producing meat without animals. The non-descript offerings in our cafeteria, fondly referred to as mystery meat, could not have been carved from a living creature. Dried beef jerky was tenderer. I once thought one of my favorites, SPAM, came from a production process akin to soylent green. Let’s not even mention the ever prolific hotdog, which should label its ingredients as … parts.
Time Magazine’s annual “10 Big Ideas” featured an article by Brian Walsh, How to Grow a Burger, where he reviews current progress with in-vitro meat, or muscle tissue cultured from animal cells and grown in a laboratory. To the uninitiated, the first thing that might come to mind is Frankenmeat, something requiring lots of lightning and wild-haired scientists screaming, It’s alive. According to Wikipedia, the science of culturing meat without animals is an offshoot from the biotechnology field of tissue culturing that focuses on growing organs for transplant. It isn’t genetic engineering, because it requires starter cells donated from real animals … sort of like sourdough bread. Bathed in a bioreactor with the same nutrients a body needs to grow muscle, cells grow along scaffolding substrates that move to simulate exercise. They’ve even coined a name for it. SHMEAT. The animal rights organization, PETA, is sponsoring a contest with a cash reward for the first team to accomplish an economical process for SHMEAT. Imagine all the animals spared the nightmare of walking the green mile. Herculean efforts are testing production of boneless chicken as we speak. An order of buffalo wings without the … wings. Would you like GMO fries with that?
We’ll lose an entire dictionary page of meat terms. No more chuck roast, rib-eye, tenderloin, or T-Bone (unless we culture meat to a plastic bone to give us the illusion). We can probably keep Hanger Steak, it’s kind of how it’s made. How would you label it in the grocery store … 100% Organic Hydroponic Beef? Vat-grown with only the freshest amino acids. Imagine nouveau-fare restaurants with “lab to table” cuisine.
I’m all for a sustainable supply chain and foods that require less energy and produce less waste, but could the world handle the idea of victimless meat? We haven’t had much success with acceptance of modified foods. Just mention the word in some countries, and have your passport ready to make a hasty exit. Foodies of the world will undoubtedly be critical of compromises to texture and taste. Thousands of years of human culture will have to reevaluate its ideology. Foie-gras without the controversy? I can already hear the French howling, mostly of laughter.
Ethical objections to animal husbandry aside, we are speaking of future trends. Today, research is more tuned to economies of scale for things like, chicken breasts without all that other stuff, like a living chicken. In fictional dystopian worlds, animal protein without the animal is not so outlandish. In our world, whether SHMEAT becomes the norm, rather than an exception, we will just have to wait to see what the future holds for a planet bursting at the seams with that other animal of concern.