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Sayonara to cows and chickens?

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The once science fiction scenario of a populace consuming foods grown in test tubes is now not only possible, proponents say it could solve a lot of the problems related to animal agriculture. Cells cultured from meat are capable of multiplying so many times that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the entire population of Earth for a year.

Meat grown in factories: Scientists say cells cultured from meat are capable of multiplying so many times that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the entire population of Earth for a year.

So, picture this a few years hence: You go through the takeout lane at your favorite fast food emporium and order some burgers and chicken nuggets — neither of which is from an actual animal, but rather “meat” grown from beef or chicken cells.

The once science fiction scenario of a populace consuming foods grown in test tubes is now not only possible, proponents say it could solve a lot of the problems related to animal agriculture.

While the process of in vitro meat production is currently too expensive to replace hamburger and chicken in the supermarkets, scientists say the technology of culturing meat from animal cells is already workable. The “meat” is made by taking cells from farm animals and multiplying them in a nutrient-rich medium.

Millions of dollars are being invested in the technology in the U.S. and Europe.

New Harvest, an non-profit research organization that supports the development of meat substitutes, with the long-term goal of delivering economically competitive alternatives to conventional meat production, says cells cultured from meat are capable of multiplying so many times that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the entire population of Earth for a year.

The resultant “meat,” we’re told, would be healthier and safer — the incidence of foodborne disease could be more easily controlled — and its production would reduce pollution (some estimates are that as much as 25 percent of greenhouse gases come from animal agriculture).

It can be seasoned, cooked, and consumed as boneless, processed meat such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets. While technology has yet to be developed for producing unprocessed meats, such as steaks or pork chops, scientists don’t see it as an insurmountable challenge.

Another advantage of cultured meats, they say, would be the ability to control the amount of fats that many doctors consider a risk to heart/circulatory health — to, in fact, produce a burger patty that would contain an ideal fatty acid ratio. Unlike meat substitutes, such as soy burgers, scientists say the flavor and texture of cultured meat would be much the same as similar products from slaughtered animals (not that most of today’s fast food burgers or chicken nuggets would win any taste/quality honors).

But being technically able to do something doesn’t automatically entail public acceptance. Would cultured meats become just a replay of the “Frankenfoods” battle that has surrounded GMO crops? Or would most consumers, as with GMOs, consider it a tempest in a teapot?

Would it be, as some charge, yet another step toward the commoditization of life and further concentration of food production in the hands of a few huge corporations?

A larger question: What would it do to the thousands of livestock and poultry producers whose businesses could be adversely affected by a widespread move to cultured meat products? What impact would such a loss have on agriculture and the economy?

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