The following paper analyzes the coverage of lab manufactured meat in eleven different articles from a selection of online and traditional media as well as academic journals.
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The articles range in date from 2005 through to 2011 and cover various elements of the issues surrounding lab manufactured or in vitro meat, including the ethical concerns, the economic ramifications, the scientific viability of lab manufactured meat and the perceived environmental benefits of this technology.
The report found that the portrayal of lab manufactured meat in the media spent the balance of coverage on the so-called ‘yuck’ factor, namely, that lab manufactured meat does not come from a real animal, but from a laboratory; this coverage skewed the reader unfavourably toward the environmental and ethical benefits of lab manufactured meat.
The purpose of this research is threefold: one, the research seeks to ascertain how lab manufactured meat is portrayed in the media, specifically in regard to its environmental benefits, and how these perceived benefits measure up against the palatability of in vitro meat to the current meat eating consumer.
Two, the research seeks to uncover the facts about lab manufactured meat – what is it, how is it made and what are the pros and cons associated with this burgeoning food industry. Thirdly, this report aims to identify the viability of lab manufactured meat as a replacement for mass meat or factory farming, with an eye to cost effectiveness, ethical elements, the impact to labour worldwide and effective management of the finite resources associated with the mass meat farming techniques, particularly water, grazing areas and reduction of green house gas production.
The technology associated with lab manufactured meat has been around since the 1980s. Essentially lab manufactured meat takes ‘stem cells from a biopsy of a live animal, or a piece of flesh from a slaughtered animal, and [places] them in a three-dimensional growth medium – a sort of scaffolding made of proteins.
Bathed in a nutritional mix of glucose, amino acids and minerals, the stem cells multiply and differentiate into muscle cells, which eventually form muscle fibres. Those fibres are then harvested for a minced-meat product’ (Raizel, 2005, p.76).
Lab manufactured meat is created within a piece of equipment called a ‘bioreactor, a fancy name for something as small as a Petri dish or as large as an industrial 10,000 litre vessel. Producing the tissue takes between four and five weeks, whether or not you are making one kilogram or one tonne’ (Lee, 2010, p.6).
The science around lab manufactured meat is still in its infancy; lab manufactured is expensive to produce and currently a means to mass produce lab manufactured meat does not exist. ‘One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of in vitro meat costs thousands of dollars to grow, with much of that money spent on the broth’s ingredients. [Scientists] …predict that the expenses will come down in about 10 years and that in vitro meat could sell for as little as $1 per kilogram’ (Jozefowicz, 2007, p. 7).
Lab manufactured meat offers a real alternative to factory farming, and herein lies the issue at the heart of the research. According to Specter (2009) ‘part of the motivation for growing meat in laboratories is animal welfare: billions of cows, chickens and pigs would no longer spend their lives force-fed grain and antibiotics or cooped up in factory farms’ (Specter, 2009, n.p.).
The mass meat farming industry generates billions of dollars per year and employs millions of individuals all over the globe. According to Steinfeld et al (2006) ‘the livestock sector…accounts for 40 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product…it employs 1.3 billion people and creates livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor. Livestock products [also] provide one third of humanity’s protein intake’ (Steinfeld et al, 2006, p. 22).
Globally, the mass meat or factory farming industries utilize vast amounts of natural resources. According to Steinfeld et al (2006), the aggregate area of land allotted to grazing is ‘equivalent to 26 per cent of the ice free terrestrial surface of the planet.
In addition, the total area dedicated to feed crop production amounts to 33 per cent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land’ (Steinfeld et al, 2006, p. 23). As the human population increases, the vast usage of resources will only continue to climb, causing more environmental damage in its wake.
Steinfeld et al (2006) state that ‘70 per cent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures and feed crops [cover] a large part of the remainder’ (Steinfeld et al, 2006, p. 23). All of this points to the fact that meat consumption has become problematic. According to Specter (2011) ‘the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty per cent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
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Cattle consume nearly ten per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty per cent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat. The consequences of eating meat, and our increasing reliance on factory farms, are almost as disturbing for human health’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32).
As an organization, the mass meat farming lobby gives voice to the millions of people who depend on this way of farming for their livelihoods – the farmers themselves, the grocery stores that sell the meat to the consumer, the people that manufacture the farming equipment – the list goes on (Miller, 2008, p.8).
Taken in global context the mass meat farming industry affects billions the world over; the mass meat farming industry is a ‘structure based on collective and communal relationships…complex team structures…that eschew hierarchy in favour of flat organizational forms and structures that cross boundaries of time and space’ (Miller, 2008, p.10).
In this sense, the mass meat farming lobby can be thought of a more complex organization; the traditional way of mass meat farming that the meat industry supports has a social and political presence that lab manufactured meat would have a significant destabilizing effect upon. While it is true that lab manufactured meat can be produced ‘by placing a few cells in a nutrient mixture that helps them proliferate…which could, in theory, be sold, cooked, and consumed like any processed meat,’ there are many other cultural, social and economic factors that this technology touches upon (Specter, 2011, p. 32).
Lab manufactured meat offers an opportunity for many of the more harmful elements of meats such as saturated fat to be chemically altered so that they are reduced or do not exist at all, which offers real benefit to the millions of people worldwide who suffer from obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure.
International patents have been issued for the development of this technology, and stakeholders from Europe and the U.S., ‘propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists, [have] emerged in support of scientific teams working at universities all over the globe’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32).
Lab manufactured meat triggers powerful discussions that reach far beyond the confines of the food industry, and affect ‘what most people see as the boundaries of nature and the basic definitions of life’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32). The goal of lab manufactured meat, according to biologist Mark Post, is ‘to create the volume previously provided by a million animals’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32).
Scientific goals aside, the moral and ethical debate growing around the implementation of lab manufactured meat may ‘ultimately prove…intractable’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32).
Lab manufactured meat therefore is an issue with far reaching tentacles; the mass meat industry is truly a global organization. A change in the current factory farming practices would reverberate around the world and would affect labour and economic markets around the world (Miller, 2008, p.260)
Postdoctoral research fellow Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia states that ‘eating less meat would relieve a bit of pressure on our sullied atmosphere by lightening the methane load…by roughly 10 kilowatt hours per day—more than double what you’d save by changing lights to fluorescents’ (Jacquet 2009, n.p.).
However, environmental benefits aside, Jacquet (2009) finds that in vitro meat misses the point that eating meat itself is not only bad for the planet but bad for the human species. In Jacquet’s (2009) words, ‘in-vitro meat does nothing to address the deeper, systemic issues of food production—we should be getting more intimate with our food by growing gardens, eating locally, and getting healthy.
The Frankenmeat solution is one-dimensional. It addresses a symptom, but not the problem: We eat too much meat’ (Jacquet 2009, n.p.).
A number of articles in the review see lab manufactured meat as a way to end the cruelty associated with current modes of factory farming which are inherently harmful and destructive to animals, and encourage a view of animals that is exploitative, inhumane and dismissive of their sentient status. According to NPR.org (2011), ‘there is something inherently creepy about…growing meat in labs…but there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat….
They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people’ (NPR.org, 2011, n.p.). Similarly, Lee (2010) points out that ‘in vitro meat would…be free from hormones and antibiotics as well as contaminates such as salmonella and campylobacter.
Its fat content could be tightly controlled and, because you could have a bioreactor anywhere in the world, meat production could become more dispersed’ (Lee, 2010, p.7).
Several of the articles observed in this report go beyond the scientific and socio economic ramifications lab manufactured meat to draw attention to the wide spread cultural changes that this technology would exact if and when it is implemented fully.
Of particular concern for several publications is the whole scale change that lab manufactured meat would render between the fate of the farm, the farmer and the domestic animal. According to the New York Times (2008), ‘there is every reason to change the way meat is produced, to make it more ethical, more humane.
But the result of the technology that PETA hopes to reward could be the end of domesticated farm animals. This has often seemed as if it were the logical conclusion of some radical animal-rights activists: better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance that they would suffer’ (New York Times, 2008, p. 20).
Aside from this rather extreme editorial stance, the New York Times (2008) goes on to advocate ‘a more measured approach. Ensure the least possible cruelty to animals…raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound. But also treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals.
Historically speaking, they exist only because of the uses we have found for them, and preserving their existence means…preserving the uses we have made for them. It will be a barren world if the herds and flocks disappear in favour of meat grown in a laboratory tank’ (New York Times, 2008, p. 20).
Similarly, other articles broach the topic of the revolutionary changes that lab manufactured meat would engender in the food industry as whole. Culturally, the meat industry represents an ancient organization that holds ancient ‘attitudes, beliefs, behaviours…and cultural consciousness’ about the nature of civilization itself (Miller, 2008, p. 261). According to Lee (2010):
‘In vitro meat bears no resemblance to food production as we know it – it doesn’t involve a farmer, land, or even a real animal. At the same time, when considered next to the factory farms exposed in films like Food Inc. or Pig Business – it is cruelty-free, low carbon and potentially environmentally-friendly.
What we would stand to lose with cultured meat is the whole idea of provenance the local, well-reared, skilfully butchered cut of meat. And with it, the kinds of small, family farms and communities that support it’ (Lee, 2010, p. 7).
There are of course economic and labour ramifications for workers who rely on the traditional forms of farming: these include small to medium sized farms that rear meat, workers the world over involved in managing and herding grazing herds and the meat industry itself. According to Lee (2010), the lab manufactured meat lobby group is not popular with the farmers, and the ‘supporters of small farms are sceptical.
Soil Association spokesperson Clio Turton says, we haven’t seen any evidence that [lab manufactured meat] this is safe for human consumption. There may be unforeseen consequences of growing meat this way. Growing meat in a Petri dish is odd. We can’t imagine it would replace meat production in the UK’ (Lee, 2010, p. 7).
Researchers appear divided not only on the viability of this technology, but also on its overall purpose.
According to Jacquet (2009), ‘laboratory-made meat…might relieve the guilt of the scientifically minded and environmentally aware, but beyond that, its advantages are as-yet unclear: because let’s face it, a centralized, high-tech model of food production is not likely to solve wholesale hunger issues, nor is it likely to appeal to the “down home cookin’” contingent. In-vitro meat won’t cure obesity. And it won’t change people’s nutritional needs’ (Jacquet 2009, n.p.).
Once the eleven articles had been chosen and assembled, the research questions were organized as follows:
- How do the online, traditional and academic media portray lab manufactured or in vitro meat?
- How do the online, traditional and academic media portray science?
- How do the online, traditional and academic media portray the meat industry?
- What are the implications of these media’s portrayal of lab manufactured meat on public perception of this burgeoning food technology?
- What are the possible cultural and socioeconomic ramifications of lab manufactured meat?
When conducting the research around in vitro meat, the researcher gave each article two close readings. The first reading sought to discover and detail the psychological and emotional impact that the articles had upon the researcher, and by extension, the media consumer, using the research questions as a guide.
In order to achieve this, the researcher had to act from an uninformed place, having no prior knowledge of the topic. The researcher also needed to relate to the subject matter emotionally and psychologically open and neutral, with no stake in the information being purveyed by the articles and lacking an agenda to confront the subject matter, i.e. not as a scientist, animal rights activist or meat farmer.
The second close reading undertaken by the researcher looked at the cultural and social biases implicit in the articles themselves. The articles on the whole share a point of view toward the science around in vitro meat or lab manufactured meat, and this point of view heavily favours the continuation of “natural” – i.e.: farmed livestock – which speaks to a larger cultural bias that will be covered later on in the paper (Miller, 2008, p.81).
It is unclear from the readings whether or not the authors of the articles are aware of this bias, however the articles on the whole create contentiousness between science and consumers on the basis of taste – how lab manufactured meat will taste specifically, when compared to “real” meat. The media largely portray the scientific community as being unconcerned about how the lab manufactured meat will taste and focused instead on its environmental benefits.
An example of this occurs in Fox (2009): ‘enthusiasts are persuaded by [lab manufactured meat’s] ‘green’ credentials. My main concern is environmental, says Stig Omholt of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in As. If meat consumption doubles by 2050, many forests will go and the calculations are very grim’ (Fox, 2009, p. 873).
In the second close reading the researcher also looked at the impetus behind in vitro meat, specifically, why does this technology warrant coverage? Why are scientists pursuing this line of research?
The answer lies in a host of problems facing the human species which centre largely on population control and the realization that the current food production paradigm remains unsustainable; there is simply not enough land and water to support it. The large network of people and livelihoods involved in the current food production paradigm, i.e. food grown in international destinations and shipped globally, will need to find ways to adapt to this reality.
The observations gleaned from the close reading given these eleven sources can be grouped into four headings: headlines, tone, treatment of science and article layout. Each of these findings generated a specific psychological impact upon the researcher which encouraged a feeling of revulsion toward lab manufactured or in vitro meat, regardless of the numerous benefits that this technology would bring to the environment, not to mention the ethical treatment of animals that this technology would support.
Seven out of the eleven articles reviewed for this report contained a headline which evoked a negative response to the science as well as the concept of lab manufactured meat itself. The placement of these headlines, at the article’s outset, effectively swayed the researcher’s point of view toward the negative and effectively coloured the experience of reading the article.
Examples of this phenomenon from each article are as follows: ‘Test tube meat on the menu’ (Fox, 2009, p. 873); ‘Test-Tube Meat: Coming Soon to a Plate Near You’ (Huffington Post, 2011, n.p.); ‘Pass the In Vitro Loaf’(Institute of Industrial Engineers, 2005, p. 66); ‘Mystery Meat’ (Jozefowicz, 2007, p. 6); ‘Burgers from a Lab’ (NPR.org, 2011, n.p.); ‘Test Tube Burgers’ (Specter, 2011, p. 32), and ‘Would you Eat Lab Engineered Meat?’ (Zimmer, 2011, n.p.).
Seven out of the eleven articles researched began with a negative connotation that sustained itself throughout the article.
Of the eleven articles profiled in this report, each contained an acerbic tone in its coverage of the both the concept of lab manufactured meat and the science behind it, and actively promoted dividedness between the scientific community and consumers. Fox (2009) states that ‘the mere mention of lab-grown meat – an assortment of projects to produce beef, pork or chicken proteins in industrial-scale cell cultures – evokes enthusiasm at one end of the spectrum and caustic criticism at the other.
I wonder if you can get people to eat that stuff, says Michael Hansen of Consumers Union in Yonkers, New York. There are safety questions, technical problems and a very huge yuck factor to deal with, he says’ (Fox, 2009, p. 873).
In an article with the headline Test-Tube Meat: Coming Soon To A Plate Near You, the lead states ‘it sounds improbable – and more than a little creepy – to eat meat produced in a lab’ (Huffington Post, 2011, n.p.). Similarly, in an article published by the Institute of Industrial Engineers (2009), lab manufactured meat ‘experiments with fish tissue have created small amounts of in vitro meat in NASA experiments researching potential food products for long-term space travel, where storage is a problem.
To grow meat on a large scale, cells from several different kinds of tissue, including muscle and fat, would be needed to give meat the texture to appeal to the human palate, say scientists’ (Institute of Industrial Engineers, 2009, p. 66).
Treatment of Science
Within the literature surveyed, the science behind lab manufactured meat often receives a slightly biased approach, specifically in linking scientists with so called special interest groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Nylander, 2011, n.p.).
Since special interest groups by definition are invested in the outcome of the research, these media create a certain lack of objectivity in the science surrounding lab manufactured meat by association. Also, a certain quack science feel infiltrated some of the articles through their depiction of scientists. An example of this exists in Nylander (2011), who profiled biologist Vladimir Mironov:
‘About 10 years ago, Mironov’s research dream to grow “cultured meat” became reality when he was awarded a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for cardiovascular tissue engineering. He landed the grant with the help of Dr. Helen Lane, a top NASA food expert that Mironov invited to a workshop he hosted.
But the research is no longer funded by NASA, and Mironov said he was told that NASA was moving towards researching transgenic plants as a source of protein. Now Mironov, along with Genovese, are funded by a three-year grant from the animal rights activists People of Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.).
The fact that the biologist’s work was dropped by NASA effectively erodes some of the credibility from Mironov’s work; whether or not this is conscious on the part of the author remains unclear, however the effect distanced the researcher from the content, and would likely have the same effect on the reader.
Furthermore, in a latter part of the article utilizes the heading “Yuck factor” and goes on to delineate (Nylander, 2011, n.p.): ‘A tissue engineer by trade, [Mironov] has taken embryonic muscle cells called myoblasts, which turn into muscle, from turkey, bathed them in a bovine serum and then grown animal muscle tissue. We are working on very small scale using NASA synthecon bioreactor and porous edible chitosan spheres seeded with myoblasts from edible animals.
The cultured meat choice confronting tomorrow’s shoppers will be similar to today’s options in the meat department’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.). Although the information shared in this section is useful and vital to an understanding of lab manufactured meat, the section heading – yuck factor – potentially undercuts the value of the information to the reader. Similarly, when the article uses other opinions to react to Mironov’s work, they are written in a forceful style that sticks with the reader, through the effective use of quotes.
For example, Nylander (2011) quotes a certain Mr. Sam Bowen, a bar manager in Columbia, South Carolina, as saying that ‘one of the biggest things that people enjoy as a comfort thing is food…and until people grow up with the idea of artificial meat, it’s going to be hard to convince people otherwise’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.).
Mironov does not receive a similarly effective or forceful quote within the article; instead, he is largely paraphrased, appearing in a direct quote in the following example, ‘[Mironov] says cultured meat will be functional, natural, designed food, arguing that modified food is already common practice, and not harmful’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.).
The weakness of the quotes used to introduce the biologist to the reader in effect further undercuts the viability of his research. According to Nylander (2011), the biologist Mironov is part of ‘a team of researchers who have been invited to a European Science Foundation workshop on in-vitro meat in Gothenburg, Sweden in August to discuss the obstacles they all share.
Funding is one of the biggest hurdles. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, among other organizations like NASA, won’t fund the research’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.). Again, the proximity of Mironov’s work being refused by funding bodies renders the message of his work diminished.
A number of the articles researched chose a specific location within the text to imbed the negative portrayal of lab manufactured or in vitro meat – the end of the text. This so called “last word” placement of the negative portrayal of lab manufactured meat successfully lingered in the mind of the researcher, as it was the last word, and by definition the strongest and most readily recalled element of the articles.
For example, in the article published by the Institute of Industrial Engineers (2009), the last line of the article states that scientists ‘also concede that it might take some work to convince consumers to eat cultured muscle meat,’ effectively nullifying the information shared in the earlier parts of the article (Institute of Industrial Engineers, 2009, p. 66).
Only one of the eleven articles reviewed ended with a relatively positive view of the technology and the scientists who champion it: ‘We are ready but venture capitalists and federal agencies are not…but the time will come’ (Nylander, 2011, n.p.)
Discussion and Conclusion
In vitro or lab manufactured meat technology does not offer a viable alternative to factory farmed meat at present; estimates as to how long it will before in vitro meat is available in conventional grocery stores hover at around twenty years. That said, the technology does effectively highlight the unsustainable nature of the current food production model, particularly in the domain of meat.
Much of the literature touts the advantage of lab manufactured meat to parts of the world where shortages in arable land and water would render traditional modes of meat farming impossible. For example in countries in Asia such as India and Singapore where the consumption of meat is on the rise, scientists have remarked that there is ‘significant interest’ in the technology behind lab manufactured meat (Lee, 2010, p. 7).
However, many of these countries depend on the current factory farming model, especially the grazing of herds, and the loss of that revenue would render these countries less able to invest in the technology required to produce in vitro meat.
Other articles draw attention to the fact that should the production of lab manufactured meat supplant so-called natural meat, the fate of domestic animals remains to be seen. Domestic animals that were not raised for meat consumption would presumable still be used for other purposes; however, the care and feeding of these large numbers of animals left superfluous by in vitro meat would require a comprehensive and qualitatively new farming strategy.
Overall more than 50 per cent of the literature reviewed raised scepticism as to the viability of lab manufactured meat, and offered a less than flattering assessment of the science behind it, choosing to emphasize the cost involved in lab manufactured while often not equally balancing the cost of the factory farm within the article.
Also, overwhelming emphasis placed on the perceived reluctance of the consumer to eat in vitro or lab manufactured meat pervaded most of the articles researched. The fact is, factory farming exacts huge costs on the environment, including air quality, land usage, water, deforestation and pollution.
It also exacts costs on the animals that are slaughtered, as well as the people who ingest harmful fats, growth hormone, pesticides, veterinary drugs, and heavy metals when they eat the animals. Above all, the factory faming model cannot be sustain the human species; all this points to the needs for a radical shift in food production.
Though essentially a new form of food technology, lab manufactured meat represents a complex cultural issue with global ramifications. According to Miller (2008), ‘globalization leads to disembedded organizations and people. In a global society, behaviour and interaction are often lifted from their local context and restructured across time and space…cultural consciousness and self reflexivity is a requirement for organizational and individual well being’ (Miller, 2008, p. 261).
The more lab manufactured meat enters into the mainstream of cultural consciousness, the greater the rate of change felt across traditional lines of farming, civilization, the relationship between humans and animals and the fate of domestic animals will be experienced.
Effective environmental stewardship dictates that the unsustainable nature of the current mass meat industry method of factory farming must evolve if the planet’s resources are to be preserved for future generations. Whether or not in vitro or lab manufactured meat will provide a viable alternative for meat eaters remains to be determined.
Fox, J. L. (2009) Test tube meat on the menu? Nature Biotechnology, 27(10), 873.
Huffington Post (2011), Test-Tube Meat: Coming Soon To A Plate Near You? HuffPost Food. Web.
Institute of Industrial Engineers (2005). Pass the in vitro loaf, Industrial Engineer 37 (9), 66.
Jacquet, J. (2009) Even if meat isn’t murder, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Web.
Jozefowicz, C. (2007), Mystery Meat. Current Science, 92 (14), 6-7.
Lee, M. (2010), Lab Grown Meat: A Low-Fat, Low-Carbon, Cruelty-Free Future? Ecologist, 40 (11), p. 6-7.
Miller, K. (2008), Organizational Communication – Approaches and Processes. 5th edition. Stamford, CT, Cengage Learning.
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