Synthetic Food

In the modern industrial food system, a cow is a chemical factory which converts corn into beef or milk. This is inefficient and unsafe in several different ways. Cows can not be maintained in sterile environments, so E. coli and other bacteria from their feces can contaminate the meat. Cows evolved to eat grass, so feeding them corn, while cheaper and more efficient, significantly increases bacteria count. Moving cows from feedlot to slaughter house, and moving beef from slaughter house to market, is inefficient.

Now that we have industrialized the food chain, there is increasing study of synthetic life. There is even a Registry of Biological Parts intended to make it easier to design your own life forms. These mostly work as modifications of existing life forms. There are, for example, people working on making bacteria which can efficiently produce diesel fuel; it apparently works in small quantities but there are still scaling issues.

Different people are working on what seems to be called in vitro meat: flesh which has never been part of an actual animal. This is generally done by culturing muscle cells.

In view of these efforts, it seems ridiculous to use something as complex and inefficient as a cow to produce beef. How long will it be until we have fully synthetic meat products? (This will of course raise a host of interesting health issues, but I think it’s safe to predict that none of them will be addressed until and unless the product is already popular.)

For people concerned about the increasing industrialization of food, synthetic meat will only make matters worse. However, as a vegetarian, I think the only valid choices are synthetic meat or no meat. So I would be happy to see increasing work in these fields, and I’m confident that they will become not only less cruel, but cheaper, than dealing with real cows.


  1. ncm said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

    An animal has organs because they do something. Legs and eyes aren’t much use to a cow in a feedlot, but the intestines, liver, pancreas, kidney, and thyroid are certainly busy. I have never heard of anyone duplicating functions of the liver or thyroid.

    Maybe a collection of hypertrophied, er, “lights”, could be kept operational (not to say “healthy”) as muscle is grown and harvested and grown again. You would need clean-room conditions, as in chip fabs. I suppose the feedstock would be hydroponic algae, solar-pumped. Whatever mix of elements are taken away with the meat would need to be fed back to the algae. It is hard to imagine such an operation running as cheaply than what is done now.

    Probably more effective (somebody wake up Freeman Dyson) would be to get trees to grow meat fruits. Maybe start with a jackfruit tree…

  2. codestr0m said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    I can parallel the production of “meat” only against that of other things I know slightly better.. For example.. in the field of super computing we must achieve at least a 25x increase in performance/power efficiency to make exascale computing fit within the current industry constraints. The production of meat at some point will also have to become hugely more efficient to feed the global masses.. As a vegetarian myself I do not wonder when there wil be a replacement for meat since it readily exists today.. (tofu for example) Yet at the same time tofu and other foods is not a panacea.. In a way it just shifts the problems from worrying about the evolution of resistant bacteria to the consequences of genetically modified foods.. I wish the US would label more accurately genetically modified foods at that consumers would respond as they did in europe.. (By not buying them.) While I am no agrarian I do wish the local farming practices would return globally..

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