Monday, March 7th, 2011

Those Germans, they do love their meat! Especially their pork – oh, they’ve adored their Schweinefleisch ever since wandering Gothic tribes from the North/East that make up the current majority ethnic composition first arrived about 1,500 years ago.

But now in the 21st century, there’s a problem: Food is now getting more expensive, and that’s even just your basic vegetable foodstuffs, not to speak of meats whose production must necessarily involve a diversion of such foodstuffs from the mouths of humans to those of your domestic animal of taste. Here again, technology might offer the only hope for a solution, so it’s amusing to read coverage by the slightly low-brow German newsmagazine Stern (Researchers work up an artificial schnitzel) on the latest science of producing artificial meat from a laboratory rather than an animal.

The research described here is certainly not going on in Germany – which raises the question of whether such investigations are to be found there at all, since if they were, you’d assume Stern would have preferred to cover those. No, this article is specifically about the “test-tube meat” project going on at the Medical University of South Carolina, located in Charleston. Indeed, what took Stern’s writers (unnamed here) so long to pick up the scent? The project has namely been ongoing for more than 10 years now, spurred by initial research monies contributed by the National Aeronautic & Space Administration (i.e. NASA – logical, since they’re interested in how meat can be produced for astronauts’ diets on super-long space-flights, like to Mars) as well as PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (also logical, no?).

Whenever you’re on this subject, however, there’s always an elephant in the room: Can anyone actually be convinced to actually eat such “test-tube meat” on any regular basis (besides, I suppose, astronauts)? The article does not duck the issue – which it terms early-on the Ekel-Faktor or “disgust-factor” – but neither does it do much to ease worries on that score. It quotes the opinion of a certain “gourmet,” also from South Carolina, to the effect that full acceptance of such artificial meat will probably have to await the generation that has been raised on it exclusively; it reports the inconvenient fact that it is actually liver cells (yes, liver!) that are best at growing in a laboratory test-tube. And the two scientists in charge of the project whom it introduces to us are one Vladimir Mironov – yes, resident in South Carolina: obviously a “Doctor Strangelove”-type mad scientist who defected from Siberia! – and one Nicholas Genovese. (Great! So now the Mafia is involved as well!)

Bottom-line is that this Ekel-Faktor still looms forbiddingly as a roadblock to any sort of wider acceptance of such artificially-grown meats. But surely even more serious will be the general (some say “irrational”) Europe-wide resistance to artificial, genetically-manipulated foodstuffs of any kind, which has already long manifested itself in citizen protest campaigns, EU policy, and the resulting trade-disputes with the American authorities. This is a consideration not addressed at all in this piece, and that is disappointing because you would really think a leading German magazine would not just punt on it.

But I don’t know – maybe you, dear reader, are one of those contrary (or “early-adopter”) types who by now are just dying to have a taste of this “test-tube” food. Turns out you’re in luck: our odd couple of Mironov and Genovese will be in Göteborg, Sweden, in August for a conference of the European Science Foundation, and will of course bring along some of their famous Frankenhor-d’oeuvres. Now it’s simply your task to figure out how to get there and either score tickets or simply crash the occasion.

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