Test Tube T-bones

BeefA magazine article I read as a kid has stayed with me all these years. It must have been 1970. Back then Time was an important window to the world (scary thought). In this piece its editors wanted to dazzle us with visions of the future; 50 years hence to be exact. They had a staff artist sketch the predictions of a jury of futurists. The result is a picture of the men and women who would inhabit the U.S., circa 2020. These people, it didn’t escape my notice, were the young adults I would come to know when I was as old as my grandparents.

You could see in those sketches the time’s many revolutionary changes. The forecasters used as their starting blocks the recent revolutions in feminism, fashion and technology — and probably many more. They ran feverishly from that spot, only stopping when the horizon gleamed brightly with geo-domes and hovercrafts. Sometimes optimistic, the depictions were mostly just plain weird.

True, there were a few on-target predictions. I especially recall the general metrosexual appearance of the men.  It seems that by then facial hair will be outlawed, or perhaps cured. The men were also uniformly round-shouldered, presumably made so by the helpful toilings of brawny robots. As for the fairer gender, I was a little too young then to notice, but yes, the women of the future will be plenty hot … if you go in for the boyish, fashion model types.

A Thin Future

Conspicuous by today’s standards, no one depicted in this lineup looked even remotely in need of Jenny Craig. The effects of the Earl Butz / Nixon Era agricultural policies had not yet materialized at the time of the article, so the futurists couldn’t factor them forward to today’s ever-expanding American waistlines. Corn crops were not yet heavily subsidized. The cost of food on American tables was three times higher in 1970 than it is today, factored for inflation. Futurists had no inkling of a time where cheap corn-based calories were the norm and rates of obesity and diabetes were through the roof.

Those postcards from the future seemed lightweight in other ways as well.

There were many small gaffes. Example: There were no tattoos or piercings. There were several glaring ones, too. I recall that all the Americans were WASP-white. (This was after all from a time in our history when, until a few year earlier, Crayola was able to unironically label a salmony-beige crayon “Flesh.”) Also, inexplicably, everyone in 2020 will wear long robes. Did you know this? Apparently we’ll all look like we just stepped out of the shower.

The Future, Now and Then

Why do I bring all this up? I occasionally read freshly-minted portraits of the future, and I find it fun to compare the way they make me feel now versus back then. I’ve just read a new glimpse of our future, and I can tell you this: Our future, four decades ago, may have looked weird, but today the future just looks gross.

I’m referring to the recent New Yorker story about meat that is being cultured in the lab. Yes. Right now, in 2011. Food scientists are taking stem cells of our holy trinity of animal protein – cattle, chickens and pigs – and culturing them in a nutrient-rich broth. As you may know, stem cells are capable of turning into any of their owners’ tissues. Scientists are flipping the cellular switches to Muscle and seeing what happens.

What they’re finding is plenty: The promise of cheap, plentiful meat. This is meat free of corn-fed, antibiotic drenched, water-guzzling, e-coli-growing livestock. Yes, all this from clusters of cells multiplying with abandon in labs far from their genetic benefactors.

These scientists are also finding that by “folding” sheets of these cultured cells onto themselves, they can create what will look like ground meat. Future research will look at the next step, using 3-D printers that issue bubbles of specialized cells instead of colors of ink to “print” lab-grown steaks, cutlets and chops.

Is your mouth watering yet? No, mine isn’t either. But if you care for the fate of the earth you may want to stay seated at the table.

Solving Several Global Problems At Once

In the May 23, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Michael Specter describes this strange but thrilling convergence of people and technology. He writes, “[This is] a new discipline, propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists.”

A brand new discipline is a big deal. The father and elder statesman of this one is William van Eelen, an 88-year-old Dutch native; part-time scientist, and full-time zealot. He is the focus of this New Yorker piece. Specter reports that van Eelen has pursued his dream of feeding the world from a Petri dish since the 1950s. We learn that he doggedly championed his cause in (not surprisingly) the face of decades of aggressive skepticism and even derision. It has only been relatively recently that technology and world events have caught up to him and begun to propel his work forward. A dozen years ago he achieved an important milestone. He was granted U.S. and international patents for his Industrial Production of Meat Using Cell Culture Methods.

Why are environmentalists among its supporters?

For all the carbon emissions they are responsible for, you’d think every beef flank and chicken breast we eat arrives at our plates from the back of a Hummer. According to the piece, “our patterns of meat consumption have become increasingly dangerous for both individuals and the planet …”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty percent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is more than all cars, trains, ships and planes combined. Cattle consume nearly ten percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat.

There is also a cure for individual crises: “According to a report issued recently by the American Public Health Association, animal waste from industrial farms ‘often contains pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ … Seventy percent of all antibiotics and related drugs consumed in the United States are fed to hogs, poultry, and beef.

“[Also,] the World Health Organization has attributed a third of the world’s deaths to the twin epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both greatly influenced by excessive consumption of animal fats.” The article made the point that by re-engineering the meat that’s being cultured, we may someday be able to dine on burgers more akin to health food than heart-attacks-on-a-bun.

Phasing Out the Factory Animal

That’s just the humanitarian outlook of in-vitro meat. Let’s not forget the “animalitarian” perspective:

By 2030, the world will likely consume seventy percent more meat than it did in 2000. The … implications for animal welfare [are daunting]: billions of cows, pigs, and chickens spend their entire lives crated, boxed, or force-fed grain in repulsive conditions on factory farms.

We’re reassured in the article that the cure for these social ills won’t leave a bad taste in our mouths. The fact is, we’re not talking about artificial meat. It’s the real thing. This is hard for people to grasp, as demonstrated by the way Terry Gross of Fresh Air struggled with the idea in her recent interview of Mr. Specter.

He concedes this point, and its general lack of appeal, “Nearly every person I told that I was working on this piece asked the same question: What does it taste like? (And the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was ‘Yuck.’) Researchers say that taste and texture – fats and salt and varying amounts of protein – can be engineered into lab-grown meat with relative ease.”

What won’t be easy is scale.

This work is being done by scientists now in tiny quanitities, with muscle tissue no larger than contact lenses. What is needed is a quite transition from science to engineering. Rallying the financing for this won’t be easy until more people can see a shared vision of the benefits of in-vitro meat.

But don’t despair. Just as the space program in the 1960s prospered because the science was already in place, the scientific underpinnings of industrial meat exist today. What is lacking is awareness. That, and the leadership necessary to tackle tough problems like global warming, and human hunger and illness, in the face of a future that makes us all a little queasy. It’s one thing for a nation to get behind men on the moon. It’s another to look forward to tucking into a test tube T-bone.

Photo credit courtesy The Big Scout Project via Creative Commons