Do you care if your sausage never had a chance to squeal?
It's a question green-minded grocery shoppers may one day be faced with if a group of researchers in the Netherlands figures out how to exercise the test-tube-grown pork they've got lazing around in petri dishes so the meat will toughen up - and taste - as though it had been raised on a farm.
Part of a government-funded group called the In Vitro Meat Consortium, the Dutch scientists are attempting to produce meat while doing away with the farm altogether - a bold departure from the general run of research into ways to stem the harmful atmospheric emissions caused by industrial livestock farming.
Their scientific shortcut, which involves conjuring pork from a cocktail of pig blood, semen, muscle cells and embryos taken from live pigs and incubated in a laboratory, may sound alien. But if applied on a mass scale, their work could in the future negate the need for land-hogging farm operations, make a dent in the progress of climate change and head off the food shortages that are expected to accompany the global population boom.
All of this hinges on the fact that in the lab, the Dutch can theoretically transform stem cells harvested from one live pig into a quantity of meat that on the farm would require the slaughter of 1 million animals, said Mark Post, chairman of the department of physiology at Maastricht University and one of the program's lead researchers.
"Today it may be futuristic, but it's something that 15 years from now we will be looking at from a completely different perspective," Prof. Post said.
Current UN figures blame livestock production for 18 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Meanwhile, demand for meat is skyrocketing, particularly in developing countries such as India and China, where rising incomes have expanded the appetite for meat in the daily diet. By 2050, global demand for meat protein is expected to double.
"They way we produce meat right now is very, very inefficient. It's not really a sustainable way of growing meat," said Prof. Post, adding that the environmental damage caused by current meat-production practices - from the fertilizer used in feed production to the waste produced by the animals - will continue to rise with demand.
Moving meat production from the farm to the lab could take pressure off the environment and the global food supply. But first, the researchers must overcome a certain "scientific challenge" - make the meat look like meat. Currently their pork resembles a soft sea scallop more than a sinewy, land-raised hog.
"We can make muscle cells, we can grow them, multiply them, train them. Yet we're still having a bit of trouble getting them to the highly exercised muscle that we are used to finding on our plate," Prof. Post said. "If we at some point get a product that really looks like the real thing and tastes like the real thing … and no animal has suffered for this type of product, in my mind, that's a giveaway. People will eat it," he said.
Other researchers are not so sure.
"In my opinion, not everything that's doable is desirable. I cannot see myself flipping a test-tube steak on a barbecue," said Frank M. Mitloehner, an air-quality specialist in the department of animal science at the University of California's Davis campus. He argues there are still plenty of "natural alternatives" that could be employed to lessen the environmental impact of livestock production using "real animals that will end up as human food."
Those include ensuring that farmers in developing regions, such as Africa, are farming efficiently by keeping animals on land that can support them and by using them as a protein source, not "family insurance." In developed regions, Prof. Mitloehner said, livestock is primarily raised on rangeland that is unsuitable for crop production. Breeding cattle that genetically produce less methane or investing in systems that allow animal waste to be converted to energy would "turn issues perceived as problematic into solutions" without relying on test-tube science.
Stephen Moore is a professor at the University of Alberta and head of that province's Centre for Livestock Genomics Technology, which is heavily invested in researching genetic predispositions that increase efficiencies in livestock production and the effects of altering livestock feed to reduce methane emissions.
He said it's not inconceivable that test-tube meat will some day become a viable and environmentally friendlier alternative to improving farm processes.
"One would have to look at the inputs you would need to produce a piece of prime rib in a petri dish and balance that against … those inputs that will have environmental effects," he said. "You never say never."