INSERT DESCRIPTIONMuscle cells (in this case mouse) can be cultured in the lab. (Karim Sultan/Utrecht University)

The world has seen the first international conference on manufacturing meat. This is the process, tested so far only at laboratory scale, of growing pork, chicken, or beef through cell culture in vats instead of raising and slaughtering animals.

beef on the hoofBeef cattle raised for the Harris Ranch Beef Company, Coalinga, Calif. (Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times)

My colleague Mark Bittman wrote a fine piece recently about the greenhouse-gas consequences of conventional meat production. Others have explored the environmental and ethical impacts of factory and feedlot farming. Manufactured meat, in theory, provides an end run around these issues. What if you can have your meat, be ethical, and environmental, too? (And presumably they’ll engineer the bad fats out as well….)

The three-day meeting of the In Vitro Meat Consortium, held at the Norwegian Food Research Institute, is wrapping up today. (They might want to do something about that name.) It brought together biologists, engineers, government officials and entrepreneurs seeking – for both environmental and ethical reasons – to move from animal husbandry to technology as a means of providing the kind of protein people crave in a world heading toward 9 billion ever more affluent mouths.

A paper presented at the meeting concluded that, for the moment, the costs of cultured meat can’t come close yet to competing with, say, unsubsidized chicken. (A pdf is downloadable here.) The paper noted the reality of the climb up the protein ladder as countries move out of poverty, with global meat consumption at about 270 million metric tons in 2007 and growing at about 4.7 million tons per year.

It laid out the theory: “The environmental impact of meeting this forecast demand from existing livestock systems is significant. Cultured meat technology offers an alternative production route for a proportion of this consumption. This would then allow a downsized livestock production system to continue to be ecologically sound and to meet basic animal welfare needs.”

The group noted that costs for research, large-scale testing, and public relations will be significant, and anticipated that governments and nonprofit groups would chip in. That seems idealistic, at best, in a world with deeply entrenched interests linking ranching, the agrochemical industry, and giant restaurant chains.

But one could envision someday a model, say, of a solar-powered facility in southern California or Singapore basically turning sunlight and desalinated seawater into growth medium and then tons of cruelty-free, sustainable nuggets of chicken essence. (The promoters of this technology don’t envision anything, for now at least, beyond nuggets and ground meat. No filet mignon.)

For the moment, startup costs aside, the conferees concluded that unsubsidized chicken-raising still comes in at half the price. But the century is yet young.

I asked a few folks about facets of this, among them Peter Singer, the ethicist at Princeton who’s written for ages on animal rights and environmental values on a finite planet.

For those seeking an end to animal slaughter for human sustenance, is this kind of a cheat, I asked?

“Not necessarily,” he said. “My interest is in ethics, but whatever works best. If it is harder to move people on ethical grounds than it is to provide a sustainable humane substitute, I’m all for the substitute.”

I then went to my bellwether of techno-optimist thinking, Jesse Ausubel, the director of the program for the human environment at Rockefeller University. He said there is no reason to doubt that a long-term trend toward more concentrated food production will eventually lead to manufactured meat.

In fact, he said, there is essentially little choice on a crowding planet to pursue technological solutions to feeding ourselves, shifting away from carbon-containing fuels, and otherwise limiting our ecological imprint. Human nature is probably harder to change than technology, he said.

“If behavior and technology do not change, more numerous humans will trample the earth and endanger our own survival,” he told me. “The snake brain in each of us makes me cautious about relying heavily on changes in behavior. In contrast, centuries of extraordinary technical progress give me great confidence that diffusion of our best practices and continuing innovation can advance us much further in decarbonization, landless agriculture, and other cardinal directions for a prosperous, green environment. For engineers and others in the technical enterprise the urgency and prizes for sustaining their contributions could not be higher. Because the human brain does not change, technology must.”

What do you think? Can we change human nature? Should we?

Original here