The animals rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced this week that it will offer a $1 million reward to the inventor of laboratory-grown, tastes-just-like-chicken (or beef or pork), no-animals-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-burger meat—should someone come along who can claim that mantle. The Associated Press quickly gobbled up the news, and Time offered its take yesterday. PETA lays out its rationale as follows: "More than 40 billion chickens, fish, pigs, and cows are killed every year for food in the United States in horrific ways. Chickens are drugged to grow so large they often become crippled, mother pigs are confined to metal cages so small they can't move, and fish are hacked apart while still conscious—all to feed America's meat addiction. In vitro meat would spare animals from this suffering. In addition, in vitro meat would dramatically reduce the devastating effects the meat industry has on the environment."
The environmental argument holds considerable weight. Large quantities of water, grain, antibiotics, and energy are used to produce hamburgers, and animal waste is a pungent and dangerous problem of its own. If meat could be grown efficiently in vitro, the benefits to society could be many. But not everyone is fully on board: Calling yesterday for a "measured approach," the New York Times editorial board opined that it "will be a barren world if the herds and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a laboratory tank." In the long run, I wonder if our omnivorous species has any choice.
I also wonder if mass-produced, lab-grown produce might be next. Hydroponics and greenhouse gardens are hardly new, of course. But imagine a world in which crops are grown in carefully controlled indoor settings, where droughts and deluges could be managed, runoff water could be captured and reused, and herbicides and pesticides—and therefore controversial GMO crops that have had pesticide-making genes sutured into their DNA—would be unneeded. Already, some scientists are predicting the rise of high-rise farms.
Will a farm-in-a-skyscraper soon sprout over every urban supermarket? More generally, what and how will we eat in the future? As a science editor at U.S.News & World Report, I'd be very interested in any story (science writers, I'm talking to you) exploring the prospect that our descendants might subsist largely on lab-grown foods.
With a global food crisis brewing, the topic has perhaps never been more timely. Growing meat and crops in the lab might also lead to indirect environmental benefits, like staving off the ongoing destruction of the Amazon. "The meat-substitute niche is currently occupied largely by soy," the Times editorialists noted. Soy may be free of animal cruelty concerns, but it's not an environmentalist's dream. Each year, Brazilian soybean farmers burn down vast tracts of Amazonian rain forest in order to plant their cash crop, which occasionally lands on my plate and, I suspect, feeds many members of PETA.
I welcome all ideas and perspectives.