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A new kind of meat

January 13, 2011
Lake Placid News
To the editor:

In ‘Walden,’ Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other.”    

I share his optimism. Perhaps this strikes you as a sort of secular millennialism. But it would not surprise me if, within the coming centuries, we drastically reduce our consumption of meat, in the sense we traditionally know it.

I don’t, sadly, think this will be because of the reasonableness of the animal rights argument. Nor do I think it will be because of the growing environmental crisis, in which animal agriculture plays a prominent role. Rather, I think it will be because of something called “in-vitro” meat.

Named one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2009” by Time Magazine, the meat, in this case, is grown from stem cells.

As Raizel Robin of the New York Times explains, “The process works by taking stem cells from a biopsy of a live animal (or a piece of flesh from a slaughtered animal) and putting them in a three-dimensional growth medium — a sort of scaffolding made of proteins. Bathed in a nutritional mix of glucose, amino acids and minerals, the stem cells multiply and differentiate into muscle cells, which eventually form muscle fibers.”

A meat cell culture has the potential, as Robin writes, to “function the way a yeast or yogurt culture does, so that meat growers wouldn’t need to use a new animal for each set of starter cells.”

Once the science progresses to the point at which in-vitro meat is cheaper than, and indistinguishable or superior in taste to, slaughtered meat, it’s hard to imagine how simple market forces will not make animal agriculture a thing of the past. After all, the latter has permanent costs—such as housing, feeding, and transporting animals—which the former does not.

Some believe this will take place sooner than we might expect.

“I would be very surprised if we still had factory farming in fifty years,” says Paul Shapiro, the senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farm campaign. “I think the meat people will be eating in fifty years will be mostly in-vitro meat. It will happen the way digital photography replaced film and CDs replaced cassettes.”

Whenever it happens, the ethics will likely follow the economics.

As the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.”

With this in mind, I’d guess that as animal agriculture becomes comparatively expensive and thus increasingly marginalized, we’ll understand it for the exploitation it is. No longer necessary, our self-serving rationalizations of violence will slowly lose hold. Or so one hopes.

For information regarding local vegan advocacy, visit

Jon Hochschartner

Lake Placid


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