Vegetarianism springs from the belief that it is barbaric to kill animals for food, at least when other options are available. Most people don't become vegetarians because they dislike what's in beef, poultry, or fish per se; the dislike turns on how the meat is obtained. Hypothetically, if it were possible to have meat without harming animals, ethical arguments for vegetarianism would decline. Of course, it's not possible to have meat without harming animals.

Not today. But all that may change.

Quietly, researchers are working on what may be the greatest alteration in the food chain since the first time a big fish swallowed a little fish--a system in which steaks, chops, and poultry are obtained without raising or killing animals. This is not starry-eyed futurism. Based on the current pace of research; it is entirely possible that within decades or less, the raising, grazing, and slaughtering of animals for meat and other products will have been eliminated in the Western world--if not the entire world. And yet people will happily chomp on burgers and chicken salad made of genuine meat, while wearing shoes of leather.

What is being researched is a so-far-unnamed technology that may inevitably end up being called "synthetic meat," though it will be genuine, not artificial. Steaks, chops, fish fillets, and the rest are, in the end, clusters of cells. Today, cattle's bodies culture the desired cells; then we slaughter and slice. But there's no inherent reason why meat cells must have animals attached to them in order to grow. Meat is obtained in this way simply because, since prehistory, it's been the only method available. Suppose that instead, meat cells were directly cultured--that is, induced to grow under controlled conditions in a production facility--the way many pharmaceuticals are now made. Such direct culturing of meat has already worked in laboratory experiments, though not on anything like a commercial scale.

How would a synthetic-meat food chain work?

Farmers would grow feedstock plants, probably cereals and corn, that would supply the basic carbohydrates on which all food is based. The plants would also be genetically engineered to contain the protein and micronutrients, such as minerals, found in meats. (Altering crop plants by adding protein and minerals is being worked on in laboratory tests, too, but is not yet practical.) The plants would be harvested and taken to production facilities--essentially, meat factories--where their feedstock compounds would be broken down into a nutrient stew. Cell cultures for the desired types of meat would then be introduced into the stews and induced to grow. The end result would be beef or poultry that is real and biological, impossible to distinguish from the genuine article. And since the cell cultures would be based onsamples extracted in a process little different from a biopsy, no animals would be involved in the production process except perhaps the farmers' watchdogs and pets.

Today, a number of academic researchers and agribusiness firms are working on this idea, among them the Mexican food-research company Empresas La Moderna, which invented the baby carrot. (Many of the world's high-yield wheat strains were developed in Mexico, as were the plants on which The Pill is based; but that's another story.)

Costs for synthetic meat now appear prohibitive, but many analysts assume that improving technology will eventually push the cost below that of conventional meat and then the idea should take off. Lower-cost beef and poultry through synthetic culturing would also offer a boon to the developing world, where millions have protein-deficient diets because they cannot afford meat.

If synthetic meat were in stores today, many consumers would shun it as "not real." And there would be questions, of course, about its safety--questions made all the more pointed by the confused nature of current safety regulations for genetically engineered crop plants. But in principle, there's no reason why the regulation of genetically engineered food products cannot be improved to the point at which synthetic meat would be reliably safe--after all, from a cellular standpoint it would simply be a copy of the stuff people eat now.

And while meat from a cellular culture might seem "not real" to today's consumer, a century ago steaks and chicken breasts trimmed and shrink-wrapped with sell dates and bar codes would have seemed "not real" to consumers accustomed to purchasing whole beef cuts or birds directly from butchers.

Beyond the ethical advantage of eliminating animal mistreatment and slaughter from meat production, a synthetic food chain offers many other possible advantages. Meat could be genetically enhanced to reduce fat, add micronutrients, and perhaps even add health-improvement compounds. (Already, researchers are working on putting hepatitis B vaccine into bananas in the hopes of eventually inoculating the world against the hepatitis disease group.)

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