Cultured Meats

I’ve written about cultured meat, and I think that this has real potential to revolutionize the way humans do things. But — and this is a big ‘but’ — cultured meats have to be done right.

Obviously, this infomercial (is that what it is?) doesn’t address those concerns. They’re selling the idea and are looking only at the very high-level positives. Still pretty fun to watch.

So let’s talk about these problem areas and challenging constructs, just for a moment, in our march toward this future.

Adoption Yes, Now What?

At any given moment there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 billion cows on planet Earth. At an average weight of 600 kg, we’d have a disposal problem that would, at least at that moment, seem like the forgotten biblical apocalypse.

That’s a lot of biomass, biomass that’s tied up in very complex systems which will be uneager to see the change. Just imagine what the beef industry commercials are going to look like when this day comes. Take what you see now and mix it up with a tobacco ad post-1998 Tobacco Master Settlement. Yeesh!

beef

And that’s just beef. Cultured meats can replicate just about any meat. Imagine no-threat-of-death Fugu (河豚) fish platters from your favorite supermarket sushi stand. Whole meat industries, as well as all their trappings, can and will need to be swept into history’s wastebasket. The institutional inertia behind these traditions will be difficult to overcome.

Intellectual Property

The only way I see whole populations successfully transitioning into a cultured meat future is if the creation of cultured meats becomes a practice of common knowledge. A billion bread-machine like culture devices in every kitchen doesn’t have the snappy ring to it that a “thousand points of light” did, but functionally it’s a much better idea.

However, visualize a future in which this knowledge remains proprietary. On in which, just like drug manufacturers, the owner of the process can willy-nilly raise the price of something most people depend on. Everyone eats, so if a very few people have control of the food, they’re wielding considerably more power than drug company executives who on a whim decide to inflate the retail cost of a drug they own.

Let’s be clear; I’m not advocating that this become a moment in time to justify some Marxist giveaway (although you have to admit not ever seeing a picture of another hungry child has a significant upside), but there are some pretty obvious choke points in even the most distributed meat culture business model that look an awful lot like mushroom clouds. Honestly, the papers are out there. The process is repeatable. I’m looking forward to reading how to grow my own meat on Instructables sometime soon.

Living Tissue, Intelligent Design

Meat is good, quite a few of us apes enjoy eating it. To make it in this world cultured meats are going to need to be meat. Living tissue with some stringy bits and gristle. Without this we’ll be growing zombie burgers and no one is going to eat that. So, cultured meats need to living, and they need to be better than ground beef or chopped liver, which requires that we develop methods to control growth at the cellular level.

Cultured living tissue technology creates some new doors for people. Imagine being able to extract a couple of clonable cells from your body so that you can culture a new heart, pair of lungs, or set of teeth. Take that a step further, if we can direct the development of tissues at the cellar level we can also design augmented tissues and organs.

I shudder to think of what will happen to the world professional wrestling. Pretty much anything you might imagine from space marines with super human strength to ocean crossing kitesurfers with a seabird’s sense of direction become possible when we cross this technological threshold. Can you see how disruptive this technology could be?

Designed Organisms

Writing, even a little bit about this, makes me want to put this away and dive back into Winter City Above the Clouds. Humanity already alters life to meet its needs and desires. Examples of this abound from contemporary cattle to black velvet tulips. The tools we’re working with, however, are slow and clumsy.

I believe there is a roadmap here that’s worth pursuit. Biophotovoltaics, dynamic living cities – grown and tended not built and maintained, sustainable living generation ships that will take us to the stars, these things are possible.

 

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