Flash in the Pan 

The meatri dish

A philosophy paper recently published in Neuroethics presents the current state of biotech research on the use of genetic engineering to eliminate pain in animals. Author Adam Shriver, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, argues it's our moral obligation to use such technology to reduce the suffering of animals on factory farms.

"If we can't do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimize the amount of suffering that is caused," he told New Scientist recently.

Shriver, a vegetarian, says his personal preference would be that nobody eats meat and that factory farms had no reason to exist. But given the demand for meat, he assumes factory farms are here to stay and sees pain-free meat (meat from animals genetically engineered to not feel pain) as a compromise that would at least reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Shriver isn't the only one in the ivory tower thinking about pain-free meat. But this idea contains a fatal flaw that makes it unlikely to advance beyond an intellectual exercise. Factory-farmed meat is problematic in many ways beyond animal suffering, and knocking out certain "pain genes" would further encourage and enable this atrocious and unsustainable practice.

By numbing animals, we'd be numbing ourselves to the ills of factory farming, to which we should be anything but numb. Nearly one-fifth of global carbon emissions come from factory farms—more than the combined emissions of the world's transport activities, including cars, planes, trucks, trains and boats.

Factory farms use and pollute incredible amounts of water, degrading hundreds of rivers and killing millions of fish, while helping create a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts.

Slaughterhouse suffering isn't limited to the animals that die there. Uncomfortable and unhealthy working conditions, repetitive-stress injuries and the occasional major trauma are the norm for slaughterhouse workers—who are often undocumented, poorly paid immigrants whose status helps keep them from unionizing for better conditions.

Those who eat factory-farmed meat can be victimized, too, by bacterial contamination, hormones and antibiotics. Factory-meat victims also include the many people who go hungry because land that could have been used to grow food for people is used to grow food for animals. With the world's meat consumption expected to double in the next 40 years, such problems are likely to increase.

Few issues divide the human diet more than the eating of animal flesh. While some argue meat eating played an integral part in the evolution of our minds and bodies, others believe that in today's world, eating meat is completely unnecessary—and both sides may be right.

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While Shriver's pain-free plan falls short of addressing all the problems associated with factory farms, his assessment of the forces that create factory farms is realistic. It may indeed be a given that cheap meat will be consumed. If so, the question becomes: How will it be produced?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has put its money on the prospect of death-free, animal-free meat. The animal-rights group has a standing offer of $1 million to the first person or company to come up with a safe, affordable and commercially marketable process to create meat without raising or killing animals.

PETA's interests are aligned with a growing network of scientists. The In-Vitro Meat Consortium is an international alliance of environmentally concerned scientists collaborating to facilitate the establishment of large-scale carne-culture.

While the group has gained momentum and believers, the goal of lab-grown meat that's affordable enough to compete with factory farms is still five to 10 years off, according to Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a U.S. nonprofit that channels funding to animal-free meat research.

The science behind this young field is borrowed partly from medical research into tissue regrowth. The idea is to take cells from tasty farm animals, then stimulate and nourish the cells so they grow into edible masses of muscle meat that vaguely resemble animal tissue—perfect for nuggets or burgers.

New Harvest commissioned a recent Oxford University study to estimate the environmental impact of lab-grown meat. The study found replacing factory farms with meat labs would create 80 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, use 90 percent less land and water, and be cost-comparable.

Many slow-food/small-farm types are calling foul at the prospect of further distancing the eater from the source of his or her food. And they're right. I personally wouldn't want to eat it. But while meat labs seem vaguely disturbing, factory farms are completely disgusting.

Some argue cultured meat is unnatural. But neither is it natural that chickens are bred to grow so fast their legs snap under their own weight. Nor is it natural when cattle are overbred to the point that they can't even safely have sex and must rely on artificial insemination to procreate.

Some farmers and agricultural experts are convinced small farms could feed the world all the meat it needs. This may be so, depending on how we define "need." In any case, if small farmers really think they can quench the world's thirst for blood, they have a five- to 10-year window in which to make their case.

One of the biggest obstacles to cultured meat is the development of a suitable growth medium, which is a soup of salts, sugars, amino acids and vitamins. Medical-tissue cultures use animal-derived sources, like blood, but using animal fluids would defeat the purpose for meat production. Matheny says the most promising source of growth media is algae, but making the production process cost effective will take time.

If and when that time comes, and lab-grown meat begins filling the processed-food troughs of the masses, the question becomes: Will the Oscar Mayer wiener-eaters of the world even notice, or care?

If not, and if it can be made safely, and if the environmental benefits turn out to be true, I say let them eat from the meatri dish.

Ask Ari: Hard to swallow

Q: With a bumper crop of tomatoes, bolstered by the warm September weather, I was able to put away lots of salsa this harvest season. I canned some and I froze some. Without giving it much thought, some of my fresh salsa was frozen in reused yogurt containers, while some was frozen in glass mason jars. Much to my surprise (and disappointment), all the salsa I froze and stored in glass jars became nearly half liquid, while all the salsa froze and stored in the plastic yogurt containers is thick and tasty. What gives?

—Former Glass Man

A: I'm not buying your story, FGM. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you're making it up—the possible giveaway being that if you freeze salsa in glass jars, the most likely problem would be that the jars crack, especially if it's as watery as you say.

However, I'm going to assume this is a sincere question and that you were careful to leave enough headspace in the jars to allow for the salsa to expand without busting its way to freedom.

I did some research in hopes of verifying or disproving my initial thought that the vessel could influence the salsa's water content, and found nothing to indicate that freezing salsa in glass could make water materialize. I suppose there's an outside chance the glass could encourage the salsa to separate, but if so the problem could be addressed by stirring the salsa after it's thawed.

I suspect, however, that you began the freezing phase of your salsa adventure using the yogurt containers, and when they ran out you switched to glass. You scooped from the bottom, which made the first containers of salsa chunkier, and the later containers more watery.

Case closed—until some physicist or chemist writes to vindicate FGM's hypothesis.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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