Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Meat in vats: first step toward celebrity cannibalism?

This item on MSNBC cites a "yuck factor" as the principal impediment to getting people to eat meat cultured in vitro from cells taken from food animals, rather than grown "on the hoof" or claw, as the case may be. While I doubt I'd yet go to Key Food for a couple pounds of "charlem" (Charleston engineered meat) made from

myoblasts — embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue — from a nutrient bath of bovine serum on a scaffold made of chitosan (a common polymer found in nature)[,]
I wouldn't be averse to trying it. I could be more favorably inclined once Dr. Vladimir Mironov, the scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina who is working on this project (with funding from PETA) finds out how to add fat for "marbling" and "a vascular system so that interior cells can receive oxygen [that] will enable the growth of steak, say, instead of just thin strips of muscle tissue."
It's not the notion that this is a product of technology rather than traditional agriculture that gives me pause. Instead, it's a "slippery slope" argument. Usually, I'm not fond of these; so long as reasonable people like me are around to draw the appropriate lines, they'll get drawn. Still, I remember an idea from the fertile mind of Samuel R. Delany (photo at left). In his novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, he posits a future galactic civilization that, of course, has technology far beyond ours in all respects, including the ability to grow meat in vats. It's a minor point in this very complex novel, which concerns Rat Korga, the sole survivor of a disaster that destroys a planet. After his rescue, Korga is taken to the planet Morgre, in the company of an "industrial diplomat", Marq Dyeth. As Dyeth and Korga are walking together, they are approached by a member of the Butchers' Union, Si'id.
Excuse me, Marq...I have hungered all day for this honor... . But then, it's clear, the whole of Morgre has developed an appetite for our fine friend. ...We are all famished for a taste of that survival.
Si'id then takes a "sampling knife" from her pocket and, before Dyeth or Korga can object, secures a flesh sample from Korga's arm, leaving only a small cut.
"Oh, thank you!" Si'id exclaimed. "Yes, a beautiful sample. We will savor the complexities of your flesh for years to come, and it will lend its subtleties to many complex meals."
Delany saw that the ability to grow meat in vats meant the ability to grow any meat in vitro. Combine this with the old observation that, when you're a celebrity, everyone wants a piece of you, and it's easy to see a future in which "What's for dinner?" can come down to a choice between beefsteak and a slice of Sandra Bullock.


  1. Or a slice of Kevin Bacon? By the way, I think Samuel R. Delany is still with us -- and at 68 may have a few good years left.

  2. Thanks, Geoff. I've corrected my post, and am glad to know we haven't heard the last from Mr. Delany.

  3. I'm thinking "yuck factor" is an understatement here!!


    However, I kept reading by reminding myself that you are saying something valuable.

    But at the end I'm still yucked out.

    In a related (and not quite as yucky) literature vein try "The Cloud Atlas" .... really marvelous.


  4. The marketing slogan could be "Eat me!"

    I think my favorite sci-fi depiction of vatted meat came from The Space Merchants. It was some enormous blob of only genetically chicken product, grown and harvested in the bowels of a food factory (whose other operations were also pretty far removed from normal agricultural). It captured the healthful appeal of mass-produced, highly engineered and unnatural food with ebulliant cynicism. Vat-grown meat sounds ethical, and really, I think it is, but people don't usually think of Twinkies as forces for good (even when the corn is grown outside).

    (And for that matter, where do you suppose they get bovine serum from?)