Flavin's Corner
4-9-99

Tomorrow's Meat

While basting last Sunday's Easter ham, I began to wonder how many more years I'll continue the custom of eating animal-flesh. Yeah, I feel bad that all those poor, defenseless animals have to be slaughtered to make my meal-time experiences enjoyable, but those animals sure are tasty! It's a shame they have to die and maybe one day science can do something about it. Perhaps tomorrow's meat won't involve murder.

Physical anthropologists have studied the dentation and stone tool-kits of early hominids and now believe our eating habits evolved from gathering (a mainly 'vegetarian' diet with a few bugs, worms, and grubs when available), to the occasional scavenging of remains killed by other animals, then with the emergence of Homo habilis and sandstone-scrappers we became larger, faster, and more adept at scavenging. It's thought with Homo erectus (1.6 million years ago) tools were first used to hunt and kill with regularity. Though we didn't start out as meat-eaters per say, by the time Homo erectus left Africa (about a million years ago), meat was regarded as an essential high-energy fuel and enabled us to spread across the globe. We've been eating tasty lil’ animals for a long time. Such ...is nature.

With the rise of civilization and all its attendant niftiness, some six thousand years ago, humans articulated their challenge to 'nature'. They built buildings as big as mountains, monuments taller than trees, they put names to the various "forces of nature" and attempted to control them with prayer and sacrifice. Some of them went against 'nature1, didn't consume the flesh of murdered animals, and began to practice vegetarianism. At first this behavior was only found among the priestly castes of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as certain members of the royal families, but by the time of classical Greece and Rome, philosophers, some statesman, and a few of the middle-class were attempting to live without the death of animals. It may be that it's in our 'nature' to kill those tasty lil' animals (as well as each other), but there's been individual attempts to resist 'nature' for thousands of years now.

Everyone knows that meat is murder. Various religious proscriptions for ritual slaughter and avoidance of certain animals aside, all modern humans recognize the death behind dinner. Yet, we continue to eat those tasty lil' animals. Why? Because we have to... Most of us can't afford a healthy and tasty diet of non-meat items (though some cultures limit their flesh intake to a piece of fish here and a chicken-leg in some soup there), and meat continues to get the job done most effectively. I'd like to believe science can assist us with this problem. We need meat that doesn't have to be murdered.

While a Star Trek future of "replicated" meat is some centuries ahead (if indeed such a recombination of molecules could ever be possible), we've witnessed a tremendous leap forward in bio-technology over the last thirty years. Test-tube babies, human-to-human organ transplants, animal-to-human transplants, the current debate over 'cloning1, and most recently ...the laboratory growing of human skin, cartilage, and blood vessels. Perhaps, one day soon, science will be able to ...grow meat. I mean, not the face with the big brown eyes, or a heart and all the other mushy stuff we associate with a normal life-form which can interact with its environment, procreate, and sleep afterwards, but rather just a ...great big slab of meat! Okay; I guess I better explain this.

Companies like Massachusetts' Organogenesis are enabling the next century to offer amazing medical treatments for burn victims, stoke and heart-attack sufferers, and many other currently devastating ailments. Sure, there's some nasty debate about experimentation with aborted fetal tissue and the little known resale 'market1 of infant foreskins (click here for more), but once the results benefit the naysayer or someone close, future medical treatments should proceed without the usual shouting and feigned indignation.

Remember "Baby Fay" with the baboon-heart in 1984? Some folks got to the media and complained it was unnatural and a sin, but nearly everyone I talked to, at the time, admitted that if they were on "Death's door," even an animal on an endangered species list wouldn't be safe. It's about life, human life, and the choices we make to define the quality of that life. If we need something an animal has, we take it. With laboratory-grown meat we could stop killing animals for food.

Meat is muscle-tissue and various amounts of fat. Science is beginning to grow muscles for humans and I see no good reason not to extend this work to the growing of meat. Degrees of 'tender' or 'tough' could be achieved with electronic manipulation of the meat-muscle and subtle tastes normally gained from diet, exercise, or the fear generated on the way to the slaughter-house, could be synthesized and added to the meat-muscle to fit the consumer. At the very least, the introduction of laboratory-grown meat into global-society would drastically decrease the amount of atmospheric methane from bovine flatulence (rumored to be contributing to the "greenhouse" warming effect on the planet).

Some nine or ten thousand years ago, at the same time as humans began switching from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural-based society, we began to domesticate cattle, then goats, horses, sheep, and pigs. I'm not sure there's a place in the world today where cows can hang out and enjoy themselves, besides India (definitely not a place well known for cheddar charburgers and curly fries), and we'll probably have to set up massive land preserves to keep them safe. And when the populations get too much, we can sell hunting licenses to folks and they can enter the preserves and hunt the cows. This is going to be a big problem, but we must follow it through.

Though there have been some advances in veggie-burgers of late, even the best still taste like cardboard. If you want your children's children's children's children to be able to hold a bottle of ketchup and know instinctively what to do with it ~ you'll act now. Support science, demand all Republicans be registered with local police, and every time you visit McDonald's or Burger King, remember ...if it's not on-sale, go to Wendy's.

always looking ahead,
Rick

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