People are cool with eating dog, cat and horse meat so long as no animals die
The cost of a future with no butchers is steep. In-vitro meat (IVM), or meat grown in a petri dish from stem-cells, will make pricey organically raised meat look like a free lunch. And while a world with no slaughterhouses sounds utopic, lab meat still sounds pretty dubious. That said, some people may be willing to pay the price, if it's tasty.
Last month, production of in-vitro duck and chicken got underway. Memphis Meats, the company who plans to sell the petri dish poultry (as early as 2021) says it tastes just like the real thing, and you can eat it without getting blood on your hands (metaphorically and literally). The real question is, who's going to buy their lab meat? Matti Wilks and Clive Phillips, both researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, surveyed 673 North Americans to find out. Two thirds of people questioned were fully open to popping genetically engineered chicken nuggets into their mouths, once. Trying man-made meat and living on it are two different things. But the other third surveyed were keeners who said they'd not only try it but could see making IVM part of their regular diet (ie. a science meat sammy everyday for lunch).
Almost everyone surveyed had the same concerns, whether they were game for a taste or not: 79 percent of all subjects were worried that cell-cultured meat grown in a petri dish would lack flavour or that it might look like, you know, cell-cultured meat grown in a petri dish. Fair enough. They also didn't want to have to pay more for meat that looked and tasted weird. Can't blame them there. But if it turns to be scrumptious and cost less than a Fabergé egg, they'll be on board.
The price and palatability concerns are legitimate. Four years ago when the world was introduced to the first-ever lab-grown burger patty, it cost a spit-take inducing $375,000 to make. Hope they didn't overcook it (not that it'd have made much of a difference, it was not destined to be delicious — lab meat has no tasty fat). But we can always tweak flavour and it may be worth our while in the long run. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who financed the high-priced science patty said, "There are basically three things that can happen going forward. One is that we all become vegetarian. The second is we ignore the issue and that leads to continued environmental harm, and the third option is we do something new."
Petri-dish dishes could be the innovation needed but there's another issue that comes up around lab-grown animal flesh: ethics. About a quarter of the study subjects thought IVM was downright "unnatural" and rubbed their morals the wrong way. The question of ethics also divided people into interesting sub-groups. Women were slightly less open to lab meat than men. Conservatives were less curious about the environmental and ethical impact of IVM than city folk and liberals. High earners deemed lab meat less ethical than low earners (which is odd as it's definitely still a luxury product). Vegans and vegetarians recognized the ethical merit but were still far less likely to try meat, even if it was never sentient and never died to get to their plate.
Omnivores, true to form, were more open. The most notable finding was that people who'd never tried dog, cat, or horse meat said they'd give it a whirl if it was grown in a lab. IVM may relieve the hand wringing caused by the consumption of animal products and unlock an ethical pandora's box lunch. Or as tech and culture writer Annalee Newitz put it, "Once they are just vat-grown slabs of tissue, that ethical concern goes away and people are curious to taste cat burgers and literal hot dogs." What else are we willing to sample if death is off the table? If human "meat" is grown in a sterile lab (and it is, though not for consumption) does it still qualify as cannibalism if we get try-curious and toss it on the grill? Asking for a friend.
The hope right now is that IVM will give us an alternatively safe, humane, and sustainable food source. If lab-grown meat is yummy and cost-effective, butchers may become as rare as blacksmiths. And we'll be spending our summers enjoying biotech BBQ. Of course, whatever "meat" gets grilled at the cookouts of tomorrow will be up to individual consumer predilections, and pocketbooks.
Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen