Where's The Beef?

By Russell Goldman ’02

Michael Specter ’77 is the New Yorker’s award-winning science writer and the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. In the New Yorker article “Test-Tube Burgers” (May 23, 2011), he explored the science behind growing meat in laboratories. Hailed as a means of eradicating hunger and diminishing animal suffering, in-vitro meat starts with animal stem cells cultured in a nutrient-rich bath. It’s still years away from the supermarket shelf. But will anyone really want to eat it? Russell Goldman '02 sat down with Specter to find out.

What did you study at Vassar? Were you always interested in science?

I didn’t study science at Vassar. I actually had no interest. I studied literature. I became a journalist during the time when AIDS was unleashing itself on the world and I was asked to write some stories about AIDS discrimination while at the Washington Post, and that led to some stories about AIDS, the virus, which led to some other medical stories. And, I found myself really fascinated by medicine and science in a way I had never anticipated, so I started writing more about those stories. I became the [Post’s] national medical reporter, then broadened my portfolio and went to the New York Times. At the New Yorker, it’s just what’s interested me the most, what seems most compelling and also the most complicated—and I like those types of stories.

A lot of your journalism is about the way science impacts people’s lives and the way it’s often manipulated for political reasons. What was it about lab-grown meat that piqued your interest?

Two things about it piqued my interest. One was it just seemed like a fascinating science issue: Can you actually grow meat and make it the same as meat that comes from a living animal? And the answer seems to be: Yes. And the reason I found it to be an important issue is because we have so many demands being placed on our planet. We’re about to get 50 percent more people; we’re going to need to grow 70 percent more food. Lots of people don’t get protein, and this seemed like a sustainable, nonviolent, affordable way to solve some of those problems.

Is in-vitro meat a magic bullet that will end world hunger, animal suffering, and ailments associated with eating meat, like heart disease?

There are no magic bullets. This will not be a magic bullet for hunger. Eating less meat will not be a magic bullet, and using the environment in a more intelligent way will not be a magic bullet. We need to do it all. I see it as one arrow in the quiver but certainly a promising one, and one that we need to pursue.

What does it take to grow meat—indistinguishable from that found in the market—in a laboratory?

The reason it has become possible and why lots of scientists have become interested is because growing meat is basically akin to growing human tissue, which a lot of scientists are trying to do to solve medical problems. They’re growing heart cells, they’re growing bladder tissue, they’re growing tracheae. Some people realized long ago, it would be nice to do that with animals.

They basically take stem cells from say a living cow, a few cells, and put them in a nutrient bath and they grow. They then put them on a plastic scaffold, a biodegradable thing that disappears, and the cells turn into muscle fiber. More than 90 percent of the meat we eat is muscle fiber. So, you just grow the muscle. They grow it in sheets right now, because it’s the early days, but there will be other ways to grow it and I think it will be efficient and useful.

Michael Specter ’77

If we can grow human organs like tracheae and bladders, even ears, in the lab why are current in-vitro meat samples so small, only about the size of a contact lens?

First of all, we’re not growing complex organs. Tracheae and bladders are mostly just sheets of cells. Money is what makes it possible to do all these things. There’s money to grow ears and tracheae. There’s less money—or there has been less money—to grow meat because people don’t see the point in it. And they’re grossed out by it, though it’s much less gross than eating actual animals.

Growing a steak—growing something complex with muscle cells, fat, blood cells, and systems to deliver blood—isn’t going to be easy. And I don’t think anyone is going to be sitting down to eat a lab-grown porterhouse steak anytime soon. But growing ground beef, which is most of what humans eat—or ground pork, or ground chicken—we can do that today.

Then what’s the hold up? Why aren’t the world’s poor being fed lab-grown meat today?

Money and interest. These things are driven by a desire for someone to spend money and get it done. The human genome project started slowly and cost billions of dollars to just sequence one human being’s genome. You can do that in a day for just $10,000. That’s because there’s an interest. People need it and want it and understand why they need and want our genetic information. We need to make that happen and convince people lab-grown meat is important.

Isn’t ending world hunger convincing enough?

Well, not many people in America care about world hunger in any significant way because we have too many calories not too few. It’s very hard to convince people this is a problem when we’re all dying of obesity.

Why do people seem to have an instant visceral reaction to the idea? Some have already started deriding it as “shmeat.”

You can deride it, but what are you deriding? If people saw the way most of their meat is grown—believe me, they would not eat meat. I can see why people are initially repulsed—it’s a weird thing. But if you think about it, you’ll realize it’s useful. It’s safe. It’s better for the environment and it’s better for the animals.

Speaking of animals, some animal rights groups including PETA support the idea. But why are other activists opposed?

I think most of those people are, to put it in a word, insane. You can make a philosophical argument that using two animal cells is unacceptable. But for people who care about animals, if they’re going to compare the use of two stem cells to killing millions of animals, it’s difficult to listen to them go on about that.

I think most of the opposition among animal rights folks is from people morally opposed to the idea of meat. The idea of meat, and the fact of eating meat, has been around as long as we’ve been around. In fact, since long before. And we can argue whether that’s a good thing. The amount of meat we eat is not a good thing. But the idea that we can somehow make it go away is idiotic. It’s not going to happen.

The eco-friendly trend in farming is putting animals back on the farm. Taking cows and pigs out of confinement and putting them back in fields where they can graze and fertilize crops. Will growing meat in labs end farming as we know it?

If we only had in-vitro meat, it would destroy farming. I don’t think anyone is talking about that. We’re talking about two billion people who go to bed hungry every night. We’re talking about figuring out ways to feed them. If you’re rich and you live in the Hudson Valley, you can have all the organic food you want, you can have lovely farms with closed loops, where animals eat the proper food and interact with one another, and interact with the flora in a perfect way. But that isn’t the way the world works in most places and I think we have to understand that.

When will in-vitro meat be safe, edible, and lucrative?

As soon as people start to care about the other people in the world they don’t know. None of these things are that difficult scientifically to accomplish.

What does it taste like?

Taste is something that will be engineered eventually. It’s the icing on the cake.

Would you eat it?


Russell Goldman ’02 is a reporter and producer at ABC News, and head writer of the program Primetime Nightline. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.