Human Nature

Tastes Like Chicken

Growing meat without growing animals.

Read Daniel Engber’s “ Science” column on the fake-meat prize.

Chicken nuggets

Two years ago, I proposed a compromise between carnivores and vegetarians: We couldn’t change our craving for meat, but we could change the way we sated it. The solution was to grow meat in labs, the way we grow therapeutic tissue from stem cells.

Looks like I might get my wish.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has just offered a $1 million prize to anyone who develops a commercially viable “in vitro chicken-meat product.” The catch is that the product can’t contain or entail the use of “animal-derived products, except for starter cells obtained in the initial development stages.”

The idea is simple: Instead of growing a chicken embryo into a bird and cutting meat from it, you skip the bird part and grow the meat directly from the embryo.

If you don’t believe this can be done, read up on the blood vessels, livers, bladders, and hearts we’ve already grown in labs. Check out this month’s International In Vitro Meat Symposium. Scan the latest updates on “cultured meat” R&D.

It’s no freakier or more far-fetched than what you’ve been hearing from politicians about stem cells and what they can do for people. Scientists aren’t even allowed to try a stem-cell experiment in people till it works in animals. That’s all PETA is asking for: “animal stem cells that would be placed in a medium to grow and reproduce.”

To put it crudely, if you can grow a hunk of flesh for transplant, you can grow it for food.

If this idea repels you as a carnivore, imagine how it feels to a vegetarian. PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk tells the New York Times that the prize offer caused “a near civil war in our office” and that “we will have members leave us over this.” Newkirk observes, “In any social cause community, there are people who strive for purity.”

She’s right. I’ve seen civil wars like this one in other communities. In the case of the abortion-rights movement, I wrote a book about it. Pragmatists thought they could broaden the movement’s appeal by changing its language and arguments. Purists worried that these changes would narrow the movement’s agenda. Both sides were right. This is an important lesson in politics: Message, constituency, and agenda are related. The broader your message, the broader your constituency, and the narrower your agenda. You have to choose your trade-offs.

Three years ago, when I left politics to cover science, I took that lesson with me. Science, too, is political. But in science, the driving force that reframes issues, revises agendas, and realigns coalitions isn’t the transformation of spin. It’s the transformation of reality.

That force is now shaking up PETA and will soon confront the rest of us. Reality is changing. Eating meat and eating animals used to be the same thing. Now they’re coming apart. Should we promote lab-grown meat so people can eat flesh without eating animals? Or is PETA’s promotion of meat the final surrender to a mentality of predation?

Purists see it as a moral surrender. “It’s our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat,” a dissident PETA official tells the Times. Purists also point out that carnivores suffer more obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Getting your meat from stem cells might not change that.

Pragmatists point to all the issues lab meat would resolve. No more cages. No more body-inflating drugs. No more slaughter. Less environmental harm. “We don’t mind taking uncomfortable positions if it means that fewer animals suffer,” Newkirk concludes.

The lab-meat movement, for its part, isn’t sure it wants to get in bed with the animal-rights lobby. It sees a more broadly appealing rationale for its products: “controlled conditions” that facilitate the production of safer, healthier meat.

In principle, I’m a big fan of lab meat. But you have to understand what a colossal concession this is for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat “would mimic flesh,” says PETA’s press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh. That’s the whole point. The contest rules  explicitly demand a “product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh.” In fact, the product has to satisfy “a panel of 10 meat-eating individuals sourced from a professional focus group services provider.” It won’t walk or quack like a duck, so technically, it’s not a duck. But if it tastes like duck, chews like duck, and comes from duck, it’s duck.

When I wrote my plea for lab meat two years ago, a reader cracked, “If God wanted us to be vegetarians, why did He make animals out of meat?” Here’s the punch line: Animals were only the first incarnation of meat. Get ready for the second.