The question of buying meat becomes more complicated with each trip to the supermarket. With test tube meat a looming possibility, even vegetarians may want to reconsider their options.
As it stands now, shoppers practically need a tutorial on the meat industry to distinguish between free-range, organic, cloned and other varieties. But scientists are looking to add a more controversial product to the mix, by developing meat which would take animals out of the pasture and into the laboratory. Shelves stocked with in vitro meat are still years away, but the debate is already raging about how mass-produced in vitro meat could affect the environment.
The topic first gained widespread attention when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced its contest granting $1 million to the first developer of test-tube grown meat. The contest guidelines require the meat to maintain the texture and flavor of beef, poultry or pork and be completely indistinguishable from farm-cut meat. The meat must also be commercially viable within the next four years.
Scientists are already growing animal muscle by performing a biopsy of stem cells from a livestock animal and placing them in a nutrient-rich culture. In that medium, the cells divide and multiply. Cells are then attached to a scaffolding structure and placed in a bioreactor to grow.
According to a statistical bulletin released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 26 percent of land in the United States is devoted solely to grasslands and pastures. This number continues to increase, but the mass production of test tube meat could have implications for the amount of land devoted to grazing domestic animals and the environment. Widespread usage could impact water quality, disease control and even methane production from flatulent cows.
PETA claims that a reduction of livestock would greatly reduce water pollution caused by the meat industry. In a statement on its web site, GoVeg.com, PETA said "Since factory farms don't have sewage treatment systems as our cities and towns do, this concentrated [excrement] ends up polluting our water, destroying our topsoil, and contaminating our air."
But Shawn Hawkins, a specialist in animal waste management and assistant professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee, said that laboratory meat might not be the answer to water pollution. While there are some implications...