Growing meat without growing animals.

Science, technology, and life.
April 22 2008 8:41 AM

Tastes Like Chicken

Growing meat without growing animals.

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Three years ago, when I left politics to cover science, I took that lesson with me. Science, too, is political. But in science, the driving force that reframes issues, revises agendas, and realigns coalitions isn't the transformation of spin. It's the transformation of reality.

That force is now shaking up PETA and will soon confront the rest of us. Reality is changing. Eating meat and eating animals used to be the same thing. Now they're coming apart. Should we promote lab-grown meat so people can eat flesh without eating animals? Or is PETA's promotion of meat the final surrender to a mentality of predation?

Purists see it as a moral surrender. "It's our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat," a dissident PETA official tells the Times. Purists also point out that carnivores suffer more obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Getting your meat from stem cells might not change that.

Pragmatists point to all the issues lab meat would resolve. No more cages. No more body-inflating drugs. No more slaughter. Less environmental harm. "We don't mind taking uncomfortable positions if it means that fewer animals suffer," Newkirk concludes.

The lab-meat movement, for its part, isn't sure it wants to get in bed with the animal-rights lobby. It sees a more broadly appealing rationale for its products: "controlled conditions" that facilitate the production of safer, healthier meat.

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In principle, I'm a big fan of lab meat. But you have to understand what a colossal concession this is for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat "would mimic flesh," says PETA's press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh. That's the whole point. The contest rules  explicitly demand a "product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh." In fact, the product has to satisfy "a panel of 10 meat-eating individuals sourced from a professional focus group services provider." It won't walk or quack like a duck, so technically, it's not a duck. But if it tastes like duck, chews like duck, and comes from duck, it's duck.

When I wrote my plea for lab meat two years ago, a reader cracked, "If God wanted us to be vegetarians, why did He make animals out of meat?" Here's the punch line: Animals were only the first incarnation of meat. Get ready for the second.