Commentary: As phony as it gets

"In vitro meat."

Doesn't exactly get your taste buds all fired up, does it?

Yet that's what is well underway in several development projects, according to recent news reports. There are no blood vessels, nerves or connective tissues in in vitro meat only skeletal muscle fibers. Otherwise, it's essentially meat as we know it, and it's been termed "an extremely promising dietary alternative," according to a high-profileresearcher in this area.

"Humans are constantly evolving through the development of new technology," Vladimir Mironov, research professor and director of the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, told TechNewsWorld.com, a news site normally devoted to stories about data management, software developments and other IT research. "Historic trends clearly indicate that the killing of animals is becoming not very acceptable for human society. It is increasingly considered barbaric."

By culturing muscle stem cells using a special, animal-free nutrient medium to promote growth, his lab has been able to force those cells to differentiate into what Mironov labeled as "functional, authentic skeletal muscle fibers."

Historic trends aside, is there really any pent-up demand for "meat" protein manufactured in some high-tech laboratory? Of course not, but it will someday be available. Not only is there the impetus of scientific pursuit like traveling to Mars: if we can do it, we should do it but test-tube meat would (allegedly) address the two biggest perceived problems with livestock production.

One is the environmental impact. According to the analysis by scientists from Oxford University and Amsterdam University, where similar development is underway, lab-cultured tissue versus conventionally produced meat would

  • Produce greenhouse gases at up to 96% lower levels than raising animal
  • Require between 7% and 45% less energy
  • Could be engineered to use only 1% of the land and 4% of the water needed forconventional meat

No data appears to be available as to how artificial, lab-grown meat could be produced by the ton with such efficiency, nor any insights into what substrates would be required for that "special, animal-free nutrient medium" in which the in vitro meat would be cultured.

But that doesn't stop some scientists from launching broadsides against modern livestock production.

"The environmental impacts of cultured meat could be substantially lower than those of meat produced in the conventional way," Hanna Tuomisto, a researcher at England's Oxford University who led a study analyzing test-tube meat, told London's The Guardian newspaper. "We're not saying that we could, or would necessarily want to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart right now. However, our research shows that cultured meat could be part of the solution to feeding the world's growing population and at the same time cutting emissions and saving both energy and water."

Questionable data source

Those theoretical energy savings, unfortunately, appear to be based on the questionable calculations that activists have been floating around the internet for years now. For example: If you believe that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a reliable source of unbiased analysis, then you're ready to swallow such assertions as the "fact" that it takes 16 pounds of grain and 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

If that were true, that means a single steer would require about 10 tons of grains at a cost of about $15,000 not to mention somewhere north of 2.1 million gallons of water.

Ridiculous.

Yet such data are blithely accepted by editors on news sites such as TechNewsWorld.com that otherwise critically analyzes every aspect of a story on Apple's latest app, or Oracle's revised business strategy.

In fact, a little digging exposes the source of TechNewsWorld's scoop: PETA. Surprise!

"I've found this fascinating for nigh on 15 years," Ingrid Newkirk, president and cofounder of PETA, told TechNewsWorld. "We're very excited about it."

Turns out that Nicholas Genovese, a biological engineer working with Mironovis funded directly by PETA. And it's Genovese who brokered the artificial meat story, which also explains where the fraudulent data used to "back up" the eco-friendly claims made by Mironov's lab came from.

PETA, it turns out, is offeringa $1 million prize to any company that could bring lab-grown meat to the marketplace. And if that were to happen, hmm, let me think. Who would be in a position to benefit by marketing such a product line? Could it be our favorite activist organization is less interested in saving all those poor livestock and more interested in another river of revenue they could divert into their coffers?

I'll let you be the judge of that.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator

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