There’s The Beef But Where’s The Cow?

The Senate Agriculture Committee takes up the 2018 farm bill this week amid some optimism that bipartisan support will allow it to advance where its House counterpart failed. The unwieldy, more than 1,000-page document covers everything from food stamps to farm subsidies to trade and conservation policy, but it does not address a new technology rocking the food industry – cell-cultured meat.

Lab-grown meat

Also called “clean meat,” “synthetic meat,” “lab-grown meat” or “in vitro meat,” cultured meat comes not from slaughtered animals, but from a laboratory using tissue engineering techniques like those used in regenerative medicine. Scientists have been experimenting with replicating living tissue cells in culture since the 1970s, and interest in the technology has increased dramatically over the last decade. Supporters include PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which offered a prize for anyone who could develop an in vitro chicken; and billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who have both invested in lab-grown meat companies in the hopes that cultured meat will reduce the resource demands of raising animals and produce lower cost food for the world’s growing population.

Environmental and public health advantages?

Proponents say cultured meat offers several environmental advantages over traditional meat production. It could reduce the land acreage dedicated to grazing animals and growing their feed. It could also reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector contributes 14.5 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Finally, improperly managed runoff from animal manure can damage water quality. Lab-grown meat poses none of these environmental challenges, and is arguably more humane. (Starter cells can be collected harmlessly from living animals.)

It may also have public health benefits. Since many foodborne pathogens (like salmonella and E. coli) live in animals’ intestines and are spread through their wastes, the process of slaughtering animals and butchering meat can lead to contamination of the food supply. That would not be a concern for lab-grown meats, which don’t have intestines and don’t poop!

Photo: AP Photo/Jayme Halbritter, File