It’s something I rarely talk about, but this year is my 10th anniversary of being vegetarian. I don’t know exactly when, because it was a very gradual process. I started slowly phasing out meat from my diet in the late nineties, but lapsed in early 2001, when I was staying in Quebec for four months. Soon after I got back to Holland, though, foot-and-mouth disease hit Europe.
During the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, hundreds of thousands of cows were killed in Holland alone. The news showed images of piles of dead cows lying on barricaded farms. Many of them were healthy cows, who were just killed to stop the spread of the disease.
I wasn’t the only one to give up meat entirely that year. After foot-and-mouth disease, followed by an outbreak of swine fever that same year, the sale of meat replacements in Holland increased dramatically. That was probably the only positive economic effect. A large number of farming families lost their business after being forced to have their animals killed, and across Europe the epidemic cost billions.
I stopped eating meat because seeing piles of dead cows on the news made me realize how they are not treated like animals, but like objects. I do still eat fish once in a while, because they don’t have the same “aww” factor and because they are swimming freely until they’re caught, and not squished in the tiniest possible spaces. Other vegetarians have other reasons for not eating meat. Some think it’s healthier, others are concerned about greenhouse gasses, and a few just don’t like meat.
But I love the smell of barbecue.
Contrary to what some people believe about vegetarians, I don’t dislike meat. I love it. The crispy skin on a chicken leg, the juicy inside of a steak that’s _just_ right. Bacon. I just choose to not eat any of those things anymore, because I don’t agree with the way chickens, cows, and pigs are kept and killed just so we can enjoy their meat.
That moral decision will once in a while bring up the hypothetical question whether I would eat test tube meat. I don’t know. Would I? Ethically, yes. None of my arguments for denying myself meat apply to test tube meat. Okay, there is a source animal somewhere from which the starting cells have to be taken, but that is no different from the many cell biology experiments I did in the lab. If I can do tissue culture work – and I have done a lot of that – then I can eat test tube meat.
But test tubes and petri dishes make me think of research, not of food. I am picturing meat soaked in DMEM. Would I eat that? I don’t know.
Until very recently, it didn’t matter. It was just a hypothetical question, but now test tube meat has become a reality. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht has been optimizing the process of growing meat in the lab, and he will unveil the first lab-grown burger later this year.
Meat in a petri dish. (Image: Mark Post, Maastricht University.)
The research leading up to it has cost about £200,000, reports the Guardian, and was funded by an anonymous individual donor. It’s a lot for a burger, as the newspaper rightly points out, but it’s a reasonable amount of money for a research project. And if you compare it to the billions that foot-and-mouth disease cost, it’s a bargain.
“If lab-grown meat mimics farmed meat perfectly – and Post admits it may not – the meat could become a premium product just as free range and organic items have.
He said that in conversations with the Dutch Society of Vegetarians, the chairman estimated half its members would start to eat meat if he could guarantee that it cost fewer animal lives.”
Half would, half wouldn’t, and I’m still on the fence. Would I eat lab-grown meat? Would you?