PETA Sponsors Fake Meat Competition

John Schwartz reports in the Times that PETA:

…said it would announce plans on Monday for a $1 million prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”

I love it! This, in my opinion, is great news. Now the question is, how will the left accept it? Will they call PETA’s petri-dish meat “frankenfood?” Is laboratory-designed food made by lefties more healthy than laboratory-designed food by big agribusiness?! Only time will tell, but it will be fun to watch.


29 responses to “PETA Sponsors Fake Meat Competition”

  1. trollanon

    of course if they were really interested they would, i dunno, sponsor some actual research toward this goal instead of creating some bogus “prize” that’ll never be awarded. “commercially viable” what a hoot.

  2. @trollanon, I wouldn’t assume bad faith here. PETA obviously isn’t as well financed as the x-prize, so $1M isn’t that much, but it is a lot for them. And the plan seems to have created some serious internal blowback.

    What I like about this is that they are pushing a solution instead of simply criticizing everyone in the world.

  3. Hmmm… except that most tissue culture uses fetal calf serum… So you have to use aborted calf fetuses to grow beef in tissue culture. Does that make the beef veal?

    I think more of what it demonstrates is the profound ignorance of the folks at PETA more than anything else…

  4. I have a couple of problems with this…
    for example, how will they make my veal taste all milk-fed-locked-in-a-box?

    i’m glad they are at least trying to be productive rather than insane, though.

  5. Hmmm… except that most tissue culture uses fetal calf serum

    I was wondering about that myself. I suspect that the short answer is that they don’t know about FCS. Maybe someone should tell them and suggest that an intermediate goal might be the development of a cell culture medium that didn’t require FCS (or other type of serum) to maintain the cells indefinitely.

  6. I’ve thought about this before and came to the conclusion it’s a colossal waste of time. Not only would it be extremely energy intensive, it would be almost impossible to control sterility, and is fundamentally flawed from a physiological viewpoint. If people think eating meat is a waste of time and energy now, just wait until they see what cell culture is like.

    This is a good way of appearing to do something while actually doing nothing and shows they know nothing about biology or cell culture.

  7. I can’t complain with the idea. If someone figures out a way to clone large amounts of proteinaceous matter with the same chemical structure, texture, flavor, consistency, and cooking properties as beef, and it turns out to be cheaper to “grow” beef than to raise cattle, it would both lower the prices of quality meat and make meat production more efficient from an ecological perspective.

    I find it interesting that the article notes that this has caused a “civil war” within the PETA organization; the people who are likely to join PETA are also likely to be the kind of people who are opposed to genetically modifying food organisms, even if such modifications would be desirable in the long term–and even though humans have been “genetically modifying” both animals and plants for hundreds if not thousands of years through selective breeding. Corn comes to mind.

    Practical or not, this is a much better move than being bat-shit insane and breaking into the homes of academics.

  8. Also if they want to make steak-in-a-vat, wouldn’t it make more sense to sponsor a grant for people who want to study how to do that and have ideas about how they might make progress toward the goal rather than just plunking $1 million down if someone does manage somehow to do it? No one’s going to be able to accomplish the goal without doing a lot of expensive experiments and I don’t see the NIH looking at producing meat in a vat as a high priority for funding. In other words, 10 $100K grants for studying how to produce muscles in vitro would be more likely to lead to progress than a $1 million prize that is available only after the work is completed.

  9. Evinfuilt

    First off, this is PETA we’re talking about, so you know what that means. They’re done.

    PETA just released yet another press release to gain attention, and will now fade away without doing anything productive.

    The 2 things PETA seems to be good at.

    1. Press Releases
    2. Killing Rescued Animals and storing them in the freezer

    I think Dianne is right on how to make actual progress.

  10. Steve Bloom

    As someone already mentioned, vat-meat will have just a bit of a thermodynamic hill to climb. Just as it makes more sense to institute energy efficiency and conservation measures than to hope for a workable technology to remove CO2 from coal plant emissions, in the end it will make much more sense for people to become vegetarians.

  11. Perhaps their insidious gambit is to run the contest, then throw their hands up and say, “well, i guess meat’s just not an option…bulghur for all!”

  12. is this like the anti PETA site? What is you point?

  13. @monsoon

    I feel safe in saying that most of the writers of this site are extremely skeptical of PETA and its motives, based on its prior and current actions. But perhaps they are interested in change.

  14. Laser Potato

    Vat-grown chicken might taste like chicken. But then, *cicadas* taste like chicken.

  15. A few points.

    Meat doesn’t have to be anti-environmental. Currently the dominant energy flow is from corn (fueled by the sun and ammonia-based fertilizer = oil) to cow to human, with a lot of shipping in between. Same with chickens, they don’t have to eat oil-fueled corn, that’s just the way we do it, and it is retarded. Ideally cows and other animals would eat fuels that are not of value to humans like grass, and there are farms that make this successful (I think Michael Pollan covered this best). As long as we’re feeding animals food crops, rather than using them to exploit energy sources that aren’t directly utilized by humans they will be an environmentally unsound source of food. But this is not necessary.

    Two, it’s easier to just breed dumber and dumber domestic animals rather than try to recreate such complex material in the lab. Trust me, this is a ludicrous venture, and will be another waste of energy as the heat energy won’t be sun->grass->cow but oil->electricity->incubator->cell. We’ve essentially already done this. Cows and chickens are pretty stupid animals that would not survive without humans, largely due to breeding to make them big dumb and docile. We’ve already done the work that needs to be done to make these animals successful sources of food energy with minimal brain power. We should be working on ending the current energy route away from oil and corn and back to grass, not figuring out new ways to make food production even more fossil fuel intensive.

  16. I agree with PZ Meyers – Who needs a vat when you’ve got a chicken?

    Beef cattle in Australia are pretty optimised for a) converting grass to meat (not like U.S. grain fed operations) and b) stupidity. Sheep are probably even better optimised.

    And they exercise the muscle tissue automatically too, driven by non-grain biofuel 🙂

  17. Mark H: Minor quibble: Meat does not have to be as anti-environmental as it is, but sun->plant->cow->human is necessarily less efficient than sun->plant->human because of the extra processing through the cow (or other animal). Not to distract from your larger point, which I agree with entirely.

  18. I still think one of the biggest technical obstacles, other than, as Mark points out, the entire absurdity of the idea, is infection. Just try working with cell and tissue cultures in the lab, and imagine a problem a billion times bigger. Think antibiotics are a problem now?

  19. I don’t think you people are seeing what’s really important here. Using this technology, we could engineer supersteaks three feet across by six inches thick. We’re years away from a working replicator, and the research of esteemed futuronomist Dr.Crichton has shown that the cloning of prehistoric megafauna is impractical at best. For the time being, vat-grown meat is the only technology that will realistically be able to satisfy our rapidly expanding population.

  20. Except for, you know, the incredible amount of food waste, where the US spends an estimated $1 billion per year to dispose of excess food.

  21. Food waste? I never thought about the food waste… all I was thinking about were those giant, delicious, juicy steaks. Now, though, I see that there might be a rival technology: We invent a way to re-process wasted food directly into meat! Then, when people are finished with their three foot wide by six inch thick supersteak, they can merely send the mostly uneaten remains back to the factory to be processed into a new one. It’s like a perpetual motion machine but made of delicious meat!

    (Sorry, I’m just joking about the supersteak thing. In my first post I should have made it clear that by “expanding population” I meant “increasing in size” rather than “increasing in number”. Poe’s law will be the death of me.)

  22. jnovitz

    although having a large scale invitro meat industry – apart from tasting disgustingly bland – would also be sort of like gigantic abortion scheme for farm animals.

    All those pastures would have to be given over for growing feed material for the invitro meat industry and all the herds and flocks would simply vanish.

    Is non-existence preferable to a farmed life ending in the abattoir?

  23. Graculus

    but sun->plant->cow->human is necessarily less efficient than sun->plant->human because of the extra processing through the cow (or other animal).

    Except for the fact that most of that plant energy is not available to humans, due to our inability to digest cellulose, etc. When you are speaking of grass, that is. So, for the human it is more efficient, even though, from a strictly physics standpoint, it looks inefficient.

  24. I haven’t seen much commentary on the most significant part of the PETA press release. It is impossible to create artificial meat without animal research which is at minimum harvesting cells from live animals and will more likely involved growing and killing some animals. Their prize gives no limits on how to get to the final product. Thus, they are clearly supporting and offering a prize for animal research! They indirectly say the benefit out-weighs the cost so animal research is OK in this case. The same argument can, of course, be made for much medical research. This destroys one of the key planks of PETAs anti-animal research platform.
    Despite their the listed reasons, I suspect that a clear pro-animal research position (for some situations) is what will really cause a PETA civil war.

  25. Mr. Hewitt!

    Speaking as a cook, my reaction to this whole concept has been that they’re culturing the wrong tissue. Good meat flavor doesn’t come from muscle tissue — it’s all about the fat and connective tissue. Your tasty steak has some marbling and gristle.

    Pure muscle tissue? So far as taste goes you may as well eat tofu… Now pure connective tissue would be yummy. Ever have braised tendon in black bean and garlic sauce?

    Nothing against tofu but you don’t eat that stuff for the taste.

    Now if you can grow shank or cabeza in a box you’ll be talking. Mmmmm… face and ankle…

  26. Evinfuilt

    I have to agree with Sean.

    Maybe they can start off with some Yummy Bone Marrow, or the Tuna Cowl (so fatty, so rich, and what a texture.)

    Starting with a filet is wrong, we need to start as man-kind did, and thats with the basic innards. If not bone-marrow, i’ll take some livers.

  27. Heh, heh.

    You know that culturing marrow and liver for transplants is going to be a priority. The food products might start as spinoffs from the medical industry.

    The packaging copy writes itself: “Snowflake brand Pate — Cannibalism with a Conscience.”

    Mmmm… soylent (I just realized — soy and lentils…) green, delicious and humane.

  28. Dianne, true. However, humans don’t eat grass and can’t obtain much of the energy from cellulose-based organisms.

    Use of the cow and other grazing animals allow us to harvest more energy from fuels not utilized by humans – grasslands and pastures.

    Feeding them corn is stupid, bad for the cow, bad for the taste, bad for the environment, and ultimately stupid energetically. It gives the appearance of creating a highly economic food delivery system, but all it does is hide the economic costs of the energy delivery.

  29. Ignore all issues of consumer choice. The month that the price to make vat-meat falls below the price of the cheapest animal-meat, some manufacturers will start to use it. People don’t know where much of their food comes from now – and if it is heavily processed to make burgers or sausages, how are they even to know that their cheap meat came from a vat rather than a cow?

    Conveniently, texture won’t be a problem if replacing mincemeat.

    Getting it cheap will be hard. But the price of meat will rise too – more people to feed, particually with the poorer countries rapidly shifting from subsistance diet to a hunger for luxury food.

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