With almost a thousand students last week taking the OUSU veggie pledge, with pledges ranging from full veganism to ‘quitting sausage rolls once a month’, plant-based diets – whether genuine or not – are on the rise. Last year numbers of vegans in the UK rose by 350%, and vegetarians making up 20% of 18-25 year olds. But as this dedication often appears far too extreme and insurmountable for the majority of meat-eaters, scientist Jason Matheny has been working on ways to create meat without harming animals.
According to Matheny, ‘technology could produce the world’s entire supply of meat without ever killing a single animal.’ Muscle cells taken from a living animal through a needle extraction can be allowed to reproduce in what is effectively an over-sized petri dish with the required nutrients and temperature needed to grow. The mixture is then poured onto plastic sheets where the cells continue to grow, after a few weeks culminating into a millimeter-thick sheet of meat which can then be harvested and minced into other forms of meat-product such as burgers and chicken nuggets. Real meat, without the need for dead animals.
There is a potential risk of consumers perceiving the food as ‘Frankenstein food’, seeing it as unethical. However, GM foods have been widely well-received in UK supermarkets, with sugar, dairy and corn featuring among the most commonly consumed items. Wine, cheese and tofu are all bioengineered on a vast scale as well. When it comes to farming animals, ethics tends to go slightly out of the window anyway. Claims that under slaughter-house regulations animals are killed ‘as humanely as possible’ are rendered entirely inaccurate and redundant by the many illegally-filmed videos taken inside slaughterhouses, revealing techniques used to stun and kill animals to be anything but humane – with half of chickens remaining conscious as their throats are slit. I’d rather have a GM corn on the cob any day.
While a key issue with eating meat, particularly red meat, is the health problems associated with it – meat eaters being almost 80% more likely than vegans to suffer heart conditions – artificially-produced meat would not contain the high levels of saturated fat that animal meat does. Matheny suggests we could even replace saturated fat with a healthier fat rather than removing it entirely. Amy Lanou, however, argues that this would have little impact on worldwide health: ‘If we don’t take the big steps in avoiding animal-based foods, we are not going to see a decline in chronic diseases.’ Regardless, Matheny’s work seems to be at the very least a step in the right direction.
This new technology could also hugely benefit the environment: animal farming accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and planes on the planet combined. This is primarily as a result of cows being fed corn, due to price and its fattening effects, rather than a natural diet of diet causing their digestive systems to malfunction. Emissions from lab-grown meat would be minimal, impacted only by transportation of goods to shops across the country. Animal farming is also the biggest cause of deforestation, with environmentalists citing data suggesting that each pound of beef requires the destruction of 200 square feet of rainforest space. Replacing animal farming with scientific methods would end demand for more space, resulting in more absorption of carbon and more space for growing crop foods to feed the world’s starving.
While older generations in particular are often keen to stick to traditional diets and modes of food production, it should be taken into account that the way we eat and produce food today has vastly changed in only the past 100 years – in the entire year of 1919, the UK slaughtered the same number of animals as we slaughter in every day in 2016. Farm animals are also pumped with steroids and antibiotics due to poor living conditions and attempts to produce larger, meatier animals, resulting in chemical-filled meats which pose serious threats to human health – concerns such as rising anti-biotic resistance, avian flu and mad cow disease would be avoided in man-made meat produced in sterile environments.
While there are reasonable concerns with Matheny’s technique, they fall into shade in comparison with the many broad and varied flaws of the meat farming industry. The primary obstacle to the implementation of this science is funding, but with luck we are likely to see his products on shelves in the next five to ten years. I implore the food companies of the UK to watch a few of those cute piglet vines and invest.