Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The In-Vitro Meat Debate

Originally Posted on on May 7, 2012

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine h+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large. 

 A few months ago, I was having dinner with some friends at a local diner. The topic of conversation turned to transhumanism and related fields of study. Our talk went into the wee hours of the morning, and we were quite animated in our discussion of life-extension, posthuman economics, religion and so forth. The three of us were like peas in the proverbial pod, but my wife sat quietly for most of the time, sipping her tea and staying as far away from the conversation as possible. She has always had an interest in science, but once we start getting into futurism or H+ topics, she shuts down. When I come home talking about some new concept for human/computer interface, augmented reality, in-vitro meat, etc., she nods her head, saying “uh huh” at every pause in my speech, and generally humoring me as much as possible before changing the subject to something practical.

 Why is that? She is certainly intelligent enough to understand these things. Her comprehension is not in question.

I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t really think these things are truly possible. And that, if they are, the scientific advances we make are neither desirable nor practical. I ask for her thoughts on in-vitro meat and she shrugs her shoulders, saying “Nobody will eat it because it’s made in a lab. People would be too afraid of it.” Having read the article by Hank Pellissier titled Nine Ways In-Vitro Meat Will Change Our Lives I gave her examples of how it would be cheaper, healthier, even tastier, she still seemed to believe that nobody would be interested because they do not like change.

 This is one of the main problems I see with the H+ “community.” Transhumanists on the “inside,” the admitted science nerds and computer geeks and whatnot, are up to date on current research into these matters. The public, however, is not. The cubicle cowboy who uses the web for email, sports headlines and the occasional escapist pornography has no idea what the majority of the topics of interest to the H+ people are. They could not care less that somebody in a white coat is growing filet mignon in a petri dish. And if they read a short article about it on, say, Reuters, they would likely read the headline, skim the article and go straight to the comments where they will see an assortment of gems like the following…

 “Up Next….How to deal with people who have eaten in-vitro meat and have turned into flesh eating ZOMBIES!!!!” - benjamin81882

 “Great, but no animals lives will be saved. That’s a completely ridiculous and false statement. The animals just won’t be born in the first place. Vegans and veggies should be happy about this though as now more land can be dedicated to exploiting bees for fruits and vegetables and they can have their meat and eat it too. Of course, true vegans will still have to grow their own fruits and veggies and let nature take its course and no test tube meat for you as you cannot exploit animals (which includes humans) for food. LOL.” - Peter666

 And over at the Huffington Post comes one comment to which I give extra points for creativity…

 “I thought they already had this with the McRib…yum yum” - ewalter899

 Aside from this, there are many comparisons to Soylent Green and “Frankenburger” and other frightening ideas. So how does the growing community of transhumanists spread the word that there is absolutely NOTHING scary about this innovation? I have spoken to people who were using the “yuck” factor as a reason to avoid the shmeat. When I tell them (half-jokingly) to compare the slaughterhouse to a clean and sterile laboratory and then tell me which is yucky, they laugh it off and change the subject, like my wife does.

 Which leads me to the following thought. Is there are uncanny valley of sorts at play here? To the average person, is lab-grown meat not real meat? Can it only be considered beef if it actually came from a slaughtered cow? It looks like meat, smells like meat, tastes like meat - but it isn’t meat? Even though the vast majority of people no longer need to hunt for their meals, is there still some embedded need to connect with our food on a primal level? We know that this steak was once alive, and now it is not and it sustains us, so we are still at the top of the food chain. Is that a comforting thought to the carnivorous humans among us? To this I say, go out into the jungles of Africa with no weapons or tools and see how long you last. We have never been the top of any food chain. We are not the masters over most animals - only those our ancestors domesticated and bred.

 So how to change this perception that lab meat is creepy or wrong or ungodly? Well first, the media would have to stop referring to the product as “Frankenfood.” I see that in nearly every article I’ve read on the subject. It doesn’t exactly evoke a Pavlovian response from me, and I doubt it does to most people. In fact, “in-vitro meat,” the technical term for this product, isn’t so comforting either. My wife says the term makes her think of babies and that we don’t want to eat babies. There is an imitation crab meat product on the shelves called Krab and vegetarian meat-substitutes are already labeled Chik’n. In order for people to be less afraid of the product, they need to have a catchy name to call it that is also appetizing and positive. People seem to like seeing that their tuna is “dolphin safe” and that their chicken is “free-range,” meaning that the food company has taken steps to insure that the final product was prepared in a humane way with as little suffering to the animals as possible. So I propose that IVM be given a similar moniker, like “No-Kill Meat.” Nothing about labs, test tubes or petri dishes, and there is the satisfaction of knowing that this meat did not require the death of an animal. It may not be the best, but it sure beats Frankenburger.

 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has given their approval of this research, and that could help the growing population of vegetarians to spread the word about it. I know some people who believe that PETA does more harm than good but to the majority of people, they are the voice of vegetarianism. Other environmental agencies will focus on the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and other ecological benefits to IVM. Getting the vegetarians and the green thinkers on our side, promoting IVM will be sure to bring over a lot of consumers.

 When the product finally hits the shelves, perhaps we could invite our friends and neighbors to a barbecue and only tell them afterwards that their hot dogs and hamburgers were in-vitro. We could support any restaurants that serve IVM by patronizing them frequently (please no KFC jokes, I’m being serious here). In other words, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Any form of positive reinforcement is better than negative acts like attacking slaughterhouses and protesting in front of a McDonald’s. That would only serve to frighten away people who might have been vaguely interested. Perhaps some intrepid entrepreneur could open a restaurant that serves popular dishes in which the meat has been entirely replaced with IVM.

 And now I open the floor to all of you. In-vitro meat is on its way, and soon. It can be met with applause and excitement, or with derision and scorn. It is up to those of us who believe that this product will fundamentally change the way we produce and consume our food to spread the word about it. How would you make in-vitro meat more…appetizing…to the common consumer?

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