Ideas

Ideas | David Scharfenberg

I’m a vegetarian. Bring on the lab-grown meat.

Errata Carmona for The Boston Globe

I’M A VEGETARIAN. But I’m not proud of it. Vegetarianism can seem so sanctimonious and, when the barbecue heats up on the Fourth of July, so un-American. My grandfather didn’t fight in World War II so I could nosh on grilled eggplant strips.

But this habit is tough to break. Grilled eggplant actually tastes quite good, especially with a little dollop of pesto. And the arguments for shunning meat are pretty unimpeachable. Factory farming means millions of pigs and chickens in miserable little cages. And it inflicts enormous damage on the environment. Meat production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — 18 percent! That’s more than all of the world’s cars, trucks, boats, and planes put together.

If only we had a way around these problems. A way to produce meat — real meat — without the animal.

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Well, it turns out we do. A handful of “clean meat” start-ups are plucking adult stem cells from living cows and chickens, bathing them in nutrients, and turning out lab-grown chuck and chicken patties.

They say they’ll be ready to go to market in just a few years. And if they succeed, they could change the world: shuttering slaughterhouses, curbing climate change, and scrambling the food ethics of billions of people — from bacon-curious Jews and Muslims to vegetarians yearning to be free. Through the miracle of science, humanity will have found a way around meat taboos that have shaped the human diet for thousands of years.

I know I’ll be ready. Ready to slap that grilled eggplant on a big, juicy burger. Ready to put those incisors to work. Ready to reclaim the Fourth!

I think. Actually, I’m not so sure. The ethics of clean meat are, in fact, a little messier than they might appear.

IT WAS THE summer of 2013, and the first lab-grown hamburger sizzled in a thick pad of butter, right at the center of a large, black pan. Dutch researcher Mark Post had been working on the project for several years and he was a little nervous about the big reveal. There were journalists from the BBC, The New York Times, and the Times of India in attendance and a pair of designated tasters ready to render their judgment.

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“The scary part,” he confided to a documentary film crew before the event, was if the tasting went badly, “I would look foolish, and I would be responsible for pushing back this field.”

In this handout picture received via Ogilvy PR, Professor from Maastricht University Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger as Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University (R) speaks to him in London on August 5, 2013. Scientists unveiled the world's first lab-grown beef burger in London, frying it in a little oil and butter and serving it to volunteers in what they hope is the start of a food revolution. The tasters pronounced the 140-gramme (about five-ounce) patty, developed at a cost of more than 250,000 euros ($330,000) with support from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as "close to meat" in flavour and texture but not as juicy. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT " " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSHO/AFP/Getty Images
AFP PHOTO/PRESS ASSOCIATION/DAVID PARRY
Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown beef burger.

The burger fully browned, an on-stage presenter served it up with a bun, some lettuce, and a few slices of tomato. Austrian food scientist Hanni Rützler cut into the meat, slowly chewed — and pronouced.

“Quite some intense taste,” she declared. But, she suggested, there was room for improvement: “It’s not that juicy.” Josh Schonwald, author of a book on the future of food, said “the bite feels like a conventional hamburger” but suggested that the patty, lacking in fat, could use some.

There was also the small matter of price. The burger had cost about $325,000 to produce.

But the project, it turned out, had a wealthy benefactor: Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, who declared in a gauzy introductory video that “sometimes a new technology comes along and it has the capability to transform how we view our world.”

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A small but ambitious industry is pursuing that transformation now, full bore. There is Post’s own Mosa Meat, an Israeli startup called SuperMeat (“100% Meat, 0% Animal Suffering”), and Memphis Meats, which runs a small lab just outside of San Francisco that resembles a brewery.

Steve Myrick, vice president of business development at Memphis, said the company is now producing beef, chicken, and duck in stainless steel tanks for roughly $2,400 per pound. That’s a lot cheaper than it was even a year ago, and the price is falling about 15 to 20 percent per month, as the company improves yields and finds less expensive nutrients.

Memphis has added fat and connective tissue to the product and Myrick claims it tastes “exactly the way a meat eater would expect it to taste.” The plan is to be in the supermarket in 2021. “Fifty years from now, if we look back,” Myrick says, “it will seem strange to eat meat that was taken directly out of a living animal.”

But a shift of that magnitude will give rise to some thorny ethical — even religious — questions. For instance: Is lab-grown meat kosher?

It just might be, says Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, especially if it’s derived from a kosher slaughtered animal. And just as important, he adds, it could be deemed pareve — neither meat nor dairy.

That raises the tantalizing prospect of a kosher cheeseburger, a mix of “meat” and dairy that would normally be verboten.

It’d be a novelty in kosher kitchens, for sure. But it would also be a cultural provocation. To turn kosher dietary law on its head, in this way, would be to toy with Jewish identity in some fundamental way.

After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, says Roger Horowitz, author of “Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food,” there was a huge shift in Judaism.

It became a de-centered religion — a rabbinic religion in which the rules, dietary and otherwise, are everything. “How can you define the way in which you’re Jewish,” Horowitz says, “other than a set of practices and standards that are shared by Jews everywhere? That’s what holds Jews together.”

Of particular importance, he says, is the prohibition on pork. Other elements of kosher dietary law, like the ban on shellfish, may be tied up in ancient concerns about the red tides and other health threats.

But pork, Horowitz says — “that, to me, is about separation of the Jews and the people around us, especially in the pagan era, where the Jews are this bizarre religion that thinks there is only one god.”

Pig becomes a “very, very deep taboo,” he says, and “that’s not about cleanliness.” It’s about following God’s law and, in so doing, “making yourself Jewish.”

There are ways to cheat the rules, these days — kosher bacon bits, for instance. But the flavoring there is from chemicals, not pig. Lab-grown pork, if it were deemed kosher, would be of a different order.

“What’s this about?,” Horowitz says, imagining the conversation kosher bacon would start. If you eat it, “have you really drawn a line between you and the non-Jews around you?”

There may, in the end, be no definitive answers to these kinds of questions — not even from the religious authorities tasked with providing them.

Nuri Friedlander, a former Muslim chaplain at Harvard who is working on a dissertation there on animal slaughter and sacrifice in Islamic legal traditions, says different legal schools in Islam have historically had different views on what kind of food is halal — or permitted — and what is not.

He says he could easily imagine another split over something as confounding as lab-grown pork. Ultimately, he says, it may be up to individual Muslims to decide which rulings to follow and what to eat.

“You’ll have some who are ready and willing to accept that it’s permissible,” he says. “And you’ll have some who will err on the side of caution and say, ‘I don’t know, it’s this new thing, it’s not what we’re used to. I’m going to be safe and order the fish.’ ”

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LIVESTOCK RAISED FOR meat occupy about 30 percent of the planet’s ice-free land, a heaving mass of cattle, pigs, and chickens wreaking incredible environmental damage. Enormous waste lagoons belch methane into the sky. Manure slurries sprayed on crops leach into rivers and lakes, creating giant algae blooms that choke the life out of fish. Drinking water supplies are compromised. E. coli infects spinach crops. And farmers clear huge swaths of forest in Central and South America to make room for ever more livestock and the soybeans that feed them.

Moving production from the farm to the lab could mean a significantly greener industry. And several studies predict just that — forecasting dramatic reductions in land, water, and energy use.

But without any large-scale biomass factories — or “carneries” — in place yet, the projections are inherently speculative. And it’s at least possible, as one study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests, that a big move to “clean meat” would involve a tradeoff: freeing up huge swaths of land at the expense of heavier energy use. Industry, after all, would have to do the work once performed by the gut and bloodstream — digesting and spreading the nutrients that grow flesh.

The other moral pillar of lab-grown meat — a reduction in animal suffering — is also a bit shakier than it might appear. Anders Sandberg, a senior researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, believes that factory farming is an outrage — chickens kept in tiny cages and deprived of natural sunlight, their breasts grown abnormally large to make more meat. Still, he says, “the only reason we have billions of chickens is because we want to eat them.” Start producing lab-grown poultry at scale, he says, and the real-life chickens whose miserable lives we worry about won’t have lives at all.

If we could improve farming conditions just enough to make a chicken’s life worth living, he says, there would be a utilitarian case for sticking with farms. A little chicken happiness multiplied by billions is a lot of chicken happiness — happiness that lab-grown meat would wipe away entirely.

Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, isn’t buying it. “Has [Sandberg] ever been anywhere near a farm?,” she scoffs, telling stories of seared-off chicken beaks and blunted pig teeth. Improving farming conditions enough to make his argument viable is a “pipe dream,” she argues. And besides, she says, animals that aren’t born won’t miss two years of a marginally tolerable life.

Newkirk was an early proponent of lab-grown meat. In 2008, when the idea was still obscure, PETA offered a $1 million prize for the development of the first commercially viable “in vitro” chicken. “We put it on the map,” Newkirk crows. “Nobody was discussing this outside some small scientific circles.”

Backing test-tube meat was “quite controversial” within PETA, she says, since the product would be derived from animal cells. And other animal rights groups have been hesitant to rally around the idea.

In Britain, the Vegan Society says lab-synthesized flesh would still promote meat consumption by “perpetuating a myth that meat is and will always be intrinsically desirable.” And the UK Vegetarian Society adds this question: “Why bother to create artificial meat when a balanced vegetarian diet is delicious, nutritious, and sustainable?”

But for Newkirk, supporting clean meat is a “no-brainer” given the massive appetite for beef, chicken, and pork and the potential to alleviate so much animal suffering. “In any movement,” she says, “you’ve got people who are purists and people who are pragmatic.”

An ethical quandary that leaves the PETA president on the side of the pragmatists is a knotty one, indeed.

I’VE GOT TO say that, after looking into it, I’m with PETA. The animal welfare benefits seem real. And the environmental arguments are compelling, too.

So why, then, do I hesitate? Why is it so hard to imagine actually biting into that juicy Fourth of July burger?

While my own vegetarianism is rooted in principle, it’s also rooted in habit. In the 25 years since I’ve eaten meat, I’ve developed a revulsion to the stuff. Not an I-can’t-be-in-its-presence revulsion, or an I-can’t-eat-anything-that’s-touched-meat revulsion. That kind of ruin-the-barbecue approach gets this vegetarian’s eyes rolling.

It’s just an I-don’t-want-to-eat-it revulsion.

But is revulsion enough? Is it a vegetarianism cheapened? Is it a real reason to stay away from lab-grown meat? I ran this by Newkirk and she shrugged it off. For the typical vegetarian, she says, eating lab-grown meat would be “no different than scraping an animal off the road and putting it on the plate — it doesn’t appeal.” Lab-grown meat isn’t for vegetarians, she says, “it’s for dyed-in-the-wool, stick-in-the-mud meat eaters.”

Myrick, of Memphis Meats, agrees. His company is called Memphis Meats for a reason — to evoke the smoky and carnivorous, to attract the consumers who power a roughly $250 billion domestic meat market and $1 trillion international meat market.

It’s only a certain slice of that market that will be drawn to the expensive first iteration of lab-grown meat — the well-compensated blue stater looking to assuage his guilt about factory farming. But for lab-grown meat to really catch on, to really be transformative, the price will have to come down. The taste will have to be right. And carnivores will have to overcome some revulsions of their own.

Polling suggests the typical consumer is hesitant to try meat grown in a petri dish. And it’s that “ick” factor, more than any vegetarian’s, that will ultimately decide the fate of the test-tube burger.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.