Vegetarian or vegan readers, would you have a problem with eating meat is the protein was grown in a lab? There would be no* animal cruelty involved, and no living breathing animals would have to die to end up on your plate. Would it be much different to eating Quorn?
What about if we could call it zombie burger, zombie sausage or zombie ragu - does that sound more appealing? Sociologist Neil Stephens, who is researching the in vitro meat proposition at ESRC Cesagen at Cardiff University, has a really cute turn of phrase about the engineered meat in his introductory paper:
"This is a fascinating technology... characterised as the ‘zombification’ of meat products... While metaphors of zombies usually lead one to think of the ‘living-dead’, in vitro meat is perhaps best categorised as the ‘dead-living’, or perhaps the ‘living-never born’."
If zombie meat were no longer the stuff of science fiction, but was something you actually chowed down on, there could be benefits both to your health and to the environment. For a start, it is known that eating meat that has been reared on cereal crops is a really inefficient way to get your energy, livestock contribute to global warming with their methane emissions, and the deforestation of valuable forests can be attributed (partly) to livestock farming. So, how would zombie meat compare? Would it be better just to stick to the veg?
New Harvest, a meat substitute advocate group, published a report earlier this year addressing the environmental impact assessment of cultured meat, claiming that there would be important benefits to land use, water use and green house gas emissions, and also energy use to a lesser extent. However, much is still unknown, as in vitro meat is in the early stages of development. This makes it difficult to compare to regular meat or plant-based proteins.
What certainly would be needed for zombie meat to live up to its promise as a 'green' product is: economies of scale. This would reduce the environmental impact per unit. Stephens reckons this means producing: "Literary tonnes and tonnes of tissue engineered muscle month after month." We're looking at the creation of a whole new industry, if this prediction manifests.
Another possible upside of eating zombie kebab (most in vitro meat is grown from from pig or cow stem cells) rather than one from a farmed animal is the potential healthiness of it. Meat could be engineered to be fat free, for instance, and it probably would not contain traces of vaccines or steroids that meat from live animals sometimes does.
But do in vitro meats taste any good? Scientists have been striving to grow meat that tastes okay since the 1990s. Apparently they are still not particularly successful yet. Stephens writes:
"Oron, Catts and Ionat Zurr – Harvard University tissue engineers – were bringing together laboratory work and art through in vitro meat technology, initially using pre-natal sheep cells to grow a piece of muscle tissue three centimetres in diameter. In 2003, their work became publicised when they staged an art exhibition in Nantes, France: muscle tissue grown from frog cells was served to banquet guests in a gallery under public view. Apparently the dinner guests did not like the taste of the meat."
Christopher Mims reports in Smart Planet that Mark Post, a biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, claims he can create a palatable "proof of concept burger" within a year, which will cost about $345,000.
Stephens says that the cost of the meat needs to be driven down with industrial-scale production, but it is also a case of demand. There are alternatives to cultured meat, ie real meat or plant-based meat substitutes. And, as he says: "People are willing to pay significantly more money for that small quantity of tissue engineered muscle that goes into their heart to restore cardiac function than they are for the much larger quantity of tissue engineered muscle that would allow them to invite their friends round for an In Vitro Meat barbeque."
Emma King, a researcher into regulation and innovation in stem cell therapies at the University of Edinburgh, adds:
"At this stage I think it is more a question of funding rather than regulatory approval around these types of products [in vitro meat]. Getting any stem cell product to market costs a lot of money, and funding is always going to be targeted at the most needed causes. If scientists did want to produce them then they would have to overcome the same hurdles as the therapies. They would have to justify why this product is needed and that it is as safe, or safer, than conventional products. They also have the added problem that we already have very safe meat - from animals."
Nevertheless, zombie meats are a fascinating proposition that I wouldn't rule out just yet. And they're really not that icky - especially in comparison to the idea of living in a home made of synthetic meat. Watch urban architect Michell Joachim explain why he thinks meat houses might be a good innovation:
*Okay, not exactly 'no'. Stephens says: "If the technology is being developed to improve animal welfare issues then consideration has to be given to the cell donor animal and the culture medium the cells are grown on. Today most cell culturing uses animal products – fetal bovine serum – as a culture medium." Though these probably don't compare with the large-scale slaughter of animals for our consumption, it might be a turn off for the most ardent animal lovers.