As scientists get closer to creating tasty, nutritious in vitro meat, let’s not turn this into another food scare.

Once upon a time, I was a vegan. This fact comes as quite a shock to people I haven’t known for very long, especially given my ate-all-the-pies physique.

One of the reasons I am no longer a vegan, and instead a fully paid-up member of the Bacon Butty Munching Club, is a slightly boozy pub discussion nearly 20 years ago with a couple of friends. They made some perfectly valid points to me about how human beings have always progressed through controlling and employing nature, rather than ‘living in harmony’ with it, and that there was no good moral reason why we shouldn’t eat animals. Yet I stubbornly clung, metaphorically at least, to my plastic shoes and wool-free sweater.

The argument that finally allowed me to fall off the cruelty-free wagon was a throwaway aside: ‘Of course, it won’t be long till they’re growing meat in laboratories and we won’t need to farm animals anymore.’ Why that would persuade me that eating animals in the meantime was a good idea, I’ll never know. But I was tucking into a chicken curry within days.

All this helps to explain why recent developments in the Netherlands caught my eye. Researchers at Eindhoven University have succeeded in creating what they describe as ‘soggy pork’ by growing muscle cells from pigs in a special solution. The major problem at present is that the resulting meat is flabby – the cells need to be ‘exercised’ to become the lean meat we know and love. Nonetheless, the researchers have a plan to recreate that effect in the lab.

The implications are obvious. Mark Post, professor of physiology at Eindhoven University, told The Sunday Times: ‘You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals… This product will be good for the environment and will reduce animal suffering. If it feels and tastes like meat, people will buy it.’ (1)

Even if the researchers do manage to improve the texture, this is still a long way from pork chops. But ‘in vitro meat’ like this could be used in processed meat products in the not-too-distant future. The idea could eventually lead to a much more efficient method of producing meat without all the mess and fuss of raising, feeding and cleaning up after animals. It certainly sounds more promising than the meat substitutes – like the soya and myco-protein (aka Quorn) – that I used to endure during my burger-dodging days as a vegan.

By and large, vegetarians and eco-commentators have welcomed the news from Eindhoven. A spokesman for PETA, the lunatic wing of animal-rights activism, told The Sunday Times: ‘As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection.’ (2) Indeed, the group has offered a $1million prize for anyone who can actually make the idea a reality.

Leo Hickman, environment correspondent and erstwhile eco-agony aunt for the Guardian, is equally upbeat about the news. He describes in vitro meat as ‘a holy grail for anyone concerned about the environmental and ethical impacts of rearing millions of animals around the world each year for human consumption. Where today we use animals to turn grass into edible protein, in the future we might bypass this inefficient process and grow edible protein in an algae solution in factories instead.’ (3)

The trouble, says Hickman, is that we’d need a lot of convincing to eat it. ‘On paper, the science sounds compelling, but it will take a superhuman effort on the part of the world’s advertising agencies to convince us to swallow it. After living through various food scares – many involving meat – you can understand the hesitancy. The scientists admit all this, saying they’ve even thought of alternative names for it. (“Krea”, the Greek word for meat, was one of their favourite suggestions.)’

Oh, the irony. For it is animal-rights activists and environmentalists who have been at the forefront of many of those food scares. The one most closely paralleling potential concerns about in vitro meat is over GM crops. Alongside concerns about biodiversity and applying patents to genetic material, environmental groups like Greenpeace have been only too happy to talk about how GM foods represent a ‘serious threat’ to our health (4). ‘We feel that this is a mass genetic experiment that’s going on in our environment and in our diets’, Greenpeace’s Charles Margulis told PBS back in 2001 (5). Friends of the Earth International assures us that ‘early indications show that when we alter the structure of our food, we may unwittingly place human health in peril’ (6). The UK’s main organic food advocate, the Soil Association, believes that ‘GM crops are unsafe and should not be used for food’ (7).

All this despite the fact no one has got sick from consuming GM foods; the objections are simply based on the speculated potential of GM foods to cause harm.

Environmentalist groups more generally have promoted the idea that humans should stop mucking about with nature. The notion that humanity could actually solve a lot of problems through understanding, controlling and modifying natural processes is condemned as arrogant. Yet now a technology has been developed that could have a positive impact on the environment and animal welfare and it is not inconceivable that it becomes stymied by exactly the kind of anti-science sentiments that greens have done so much to promote. Bizarrely, while there is much handwringing about what new chemicals and food varieties might do to us, the reality is that food-related health problems are much more commonly caused by bog-standard foods like wheat and milk, not by food additives or GM. Lab-reared meat, I’ll wager, will be harmless, too.

With any new technology, our central concern should be about how it benefits people. If in vitro meat can provide tasty, nutritious food cheaply and effectively, it could be a real boon. There’s a growing population to be fed, and more and more of those people will want to eat meat. If this new technology can help to provide it, that’s great. If climate change does prove to be a problem, animal-free meat could remove one source of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the great thing about science and technology – we can use them to understand problems and find solutions; just the kind of progressive thinking that is anathema to greens.

It will be a long time before in vitro meat can really provide a true substitute for ol’ fashioned chicken, pork and beef. I’m not giving up any of them any time soon. And if ‘krea’ proves to be an expensive, tasteless, inferior product, we should leave it to the vegans and the greens – they probably deserve it.

Why animal-free meat is a good idea, spiked