My latest book– Destinies: Issues to Shape Our Future—came out in July 2020 from B Cubed Press. In it, I discussed (among other things) the prospects for lab-grown meat. The idea goes back to 1912, when Alexis Carrel started “tissue cultures” using heart cells from a chick. The cultures lasted until 1946 (https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/alexis-carrels-immortal-chick-heart-tissue-cultures-1912-1946). It was not long before people were speculating—in both fact and fiction—that in the future we might be slicing steaks off huge hunks of meat growing in a vat.
It hasn’t worked out quite that way. The modern approach is to take a few cells from an animal, convert them to muscle cells, and let the muscle cells multiply in a vat or “bio-reactor.” When there are enough of them, they can be harvested as a rather unappetizing mush of individual meat (muscle) cells that can be textured and formed into patties. Some people are even working on using the cells as a kind of ink for 3D printers—the goal is to be able to print out steaks.
We’re not there yet. But on November 26, Singapore regulators approved marketing chicken nuggets made from cultured chicken muscle cells (https://www.technologyreview.com/…/cultured-cultivated…/). The source is a company called Just (https://www.ju.st/en-us). How successful this effort will be remains to be seen, but it does seem to be a solid start toward replacing farm animals of all kinds with vats.
There are good reasons for doing so. Even free-range chickens and pigs wind up being killed for our dinners, and pigs just might be smart enough to know what is in store for them. Cattle, ducks, turkeys, even horses, face the same fate, and it can’t be much comfort to know they will be murdered humanely—and methods of livestock execution really are much, much improved over what they used to be. Many people think meat-eating is far too dependent on systematized animal cruelty.
Livestock also require a lot of land that would feed more people if used to grow corn, wheat, beans, potatoes… It could also be used to plant trees to take carbon out of the air and combat global warming.
Livestock also generate huge amounts of waste material that must be disposed of. While awaiting disposal, it sits about in vast piles that pollute air and water and emit carbon to worsen global warming (https://www.nrdc.org/stories/industrial-agricultural-pollution-101).
If Just succeeds with its chicken nuggets, what will be the next step? Either Just or another company will take cells from ducks, turkeys, cows, pigs, catfish, tuna fish, lobster, and any other animal that is frequently found on dinner plates. Then they will turn their attention to less common meats such as deer, elk, moose, buffalo, rabbit, squirrel, dog, python, alligator, emu, elephant, and so on.
And then… People are animals too, and there is nothing whatsoever in the biology that says human cells couldn’t be sampled, grown in vats, and turned into nuggets or even steaks.
Would it be cannibalism? I suppose, but since no one is harmed by the process, surely the word must lose its moralistic flavor.
Is it kosher? Only the rabbis can answer that question, though they may not agree (https://io9.gizmodo.com/is-vat-grown-meat-kosher-we-asked-a-rabbi-5458425). It may depend on whether they think vat-grown meat is really meat. If it isn’t, then there’s no need to worry about cannibalism either, is there?
In that case… What would be the point of using human cells? Well, celebrities—politicians, actors, musicians—will do strange things for fame or money. Just think of all the musicians and other artists who contributed to Cynthia Plaster Caster’s career (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynthia_Plaster_Caster). I can easily imagine them providing tissue samples so someone could market celebrity nuggets or steaks. Of course, their agents would insist on a cut.
And let’s get rid of the tasteless jokes right now. Let’s have no mention of specific body parts and—please!—nothing racist or sexist (even if it seems inevitable).
Other sorts of jokes are acceptable–
Could you crowd-source a burger?
What does “family dinner” mean now?
What would be a celebrity chef’s “signature dish”?
Whose nuggets would McDonald’s sell? And do you want fries with that?
And finally… Some people think Jesus married and had descendants (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_bloodline). If you could find some and reconstruct Jesus’s cells, communion could take on a very literal meaning.