I once read a satirical "report" about a GMO tree that produced long ears that split down the middle when mature, to reveal a meaty interior surrounded by a thick, bready rind. If you didn't want to wait that long, you could break off one of the unopened "ears" and deep-fry it, producing a thin golden-brown cornbread-like rind over the meat. Sound familiar?
You guessed it: it was a hot dog tree. The deep-fried ears were corn dogs. Of course, the result confused vegetarians, since the meat didn't come from animal's suffering... though it was genetically and functionally meat. How do you handle meat when the rules you live by no longer apply? Is meat grown on trees vegan? Can it be kosher or halal? What kind of meat labels would you use to brand it? Would it even count as meat, or we have to label it as meat substitute? If it tastes like a duck and comes from a duck, isit duck?
Those question may sound silly at first glance, but non-traditional meat sources are closer to market-ready than you might think. And no farm is required: just a few animal donor cells and a vat full of nutrient solution. The results have variously been called "cultured meat", "in-vitro meat," "shmeat" (short for "sheet meat") and "clean meat."
So far, the path toward creating lab-produced meat has been expensive. The first cultured-meat hamburger cost $300,000 to produce. The lowest its producers have been able to get the cost down is to about twice the cost of slaughtered meat. Some people would be willing to pay this, but most wouldn't; and at those prices, they'll never be able to get it to the huge populations all over the world who can rarely afford meat. Then again, 20 years ago a portable DVD player's UPC label carried a price of $3,000. Today, you can get the same device for $30. New advances and economics of scale may bring the price down for clean meat, too.
But what happens to the livestock industry if shmeat becomes common and cheap? Unless it finds a way to compete humanely, Big Meat's probably going to see the same kind of disruption, failure, and consolidation that book publishers saw after ebooks and their readers exploded on the market. The ranching industry won't cease to exist, but it'll get smaller and more specialized. With less need for cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, and the like, we won't have to raise enormous herds that pollute groundwater, consume much-needed resources, or emit climate-changing amounts of greenhouse gasses. We can expect herds to decrease significantly, though there will always be a market for "real meat" among connoisseurs. No word on where ice cream and milk will come from if shmeat happens, so cows probably won't go extinct anytime soon.
Clean meat enthusiasts anticipate a large market for the products, since no one really likes where our meat comes from and how it's produced. Even better, consumers will no longer have to worry about injected growth hormones or excessive use of antibiotics, which breeds resistant super-microbes. By all accounts, clean mean will be better for the Earth.
That doesn't mean everyone will be willing to eat it. There's always the abiding fear of "Frankenfoods," as some people call GMO products. Clean meat advocates also hope to tempt back vegetarians of all stripes once cruelty-free meat becomes common. That may get some traction with those who eschew meat because of exploitation of animals. However, many vegetarians say it's not that simple: they don't justavoid meat just because of ethical reasons. They simply don't like the taste and texture. Also, it's a well-known phenomenon that after going full vegetarian for a while, you can completely lose your taste for meat. Indeed, meat makes some who backslide or abandon the lifestyle ill. Their systems can no longer handle it.
It's a fact that few things pack as much protein into as small a package as meat, and protein is a necessity for good nutrition. We applaud the effort to help save the Earth and provide a greater variety of nutritious food. But we doubt clean meat will be the panacea its advocates claim it will be, any more than the Segway changed the planning and layout of cities, as its advocates claimed it would. So we'll wait and see what happens—while being prepared to provide meat labels for anyone who asks, whether for traditional or cultured meat.