It isn’t 2022, so we’re not yet eating Soylent Green.

Still, if the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals get their wish, in a few short years we’ll be feeling OK about scarfing down chicken drumsticks made in labs.

The group, which advocates vegetarianism and veganism, just announced a $1 million incentive to the first team capable of satisfying their criteria and producing in vitro chicken meat that “has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.” Applicants have until June 30, 2012, to get this part right.

PETA believes taking cells from a small number of animals to make massive amounts of food ethically trumps wholesale slaughter.

“For people who are addicted to the cholesterol and saturated fats in flesh, we’re rooting for science to provide an eco-friendly ‘methadone’ for their ‘heroin,’” PETA spokesperson Nicole Matthews explains.

Hold on. Is an organization that has called on people to abandon their desire to consume flesh going soft? And what’s with using genetic modification, the bane of the eco movement, in the name of ending factory farming?

“We’ve realized that we need to get over our own revulsion at flesh-eating and do what has the potential to save billions of animals each year,” says Matthews about PETA’s new approach to carnivorous sensibilities. She insists that PETA still wants people to go vegan.

All this might be more than some animal liberation folks can handle. Not surprisingly, given the ethical Hobson’s Choice at play – do you embrace GMOs to end factory farming? – there are reports of squabbling within PETA’s ranks. A PETA co-founder told the New York Times that the proposal caused a “civil war” in the office.

William Saletan, a science columnist for who first floated the idea of “lab meat” two years ago, summed up the debate nicely in an April column: “In principle, I’m a big fan of lab meat. But you have to understand what a colossal concession this is for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat ‘would mimic flesh,’ says PETA’s press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh.”

“If it’s synthesized in a laboratory, it gets you away from the suffering but it doesn’t get you away from what you’re putting in your body and why,” says Ronnie Hawkins, a bioethicist and philosophy professor at the University of Central Florida.

There’s a more practical question at play. Is petri-dish flesh viable as a mass-market food option? “Personally, I think it’s a long way off,” says Stephen Pretanik, director of science and technology for the National Chicken Council, a D.C.-based trade association that lobbies on behalf of the chicken industry. “Whether it becomes a practical source of protein for consumers – only time will tell.”

His Canadian counterpart doesn’t sound worried. “People eat a lot of chicken, and they don’t have any problems with how we do our business. We had a billion kilograms of production in 2007, our highest ever,” says Chicken Farmers of Canada spokesman Marty Brett.

But even if people want ersatz chicken, will science be able to deliver it on a large enough scale to compete? The $1 million prize, after all, requires that successful applicants manufacture a viable, approved product in quantities large enough to be sold at competitive prices in at least 10 American states.

As Pretanik points out, last year 9 billion chickens were processed in the United States alone.

Serguei Golovan of the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is skeptical.

“It doesn’t seem possible to grow in-vitro meat by that date,” he says. Many labs are growing muscle cells in culture, but he would hardly call that meat. “Meat has a very specific structure and texture. You know, muscle cells would need fat cells in there to produce the taste,” Golovan explains.

Pretanik concurs. “Assuming they can do this on a commercial scale, they would probably have a limited market unless the technology advances,” he says. “They’re not able to get the texture like a solid piece of muscle, so it would be used for sausages and so forth.”

As for achieving a market price, Golovan says, “Cell culture is very expensive.” He estimates that lab meat would be “100 times more expensive than meat in the store.”

That said, Golovan believes that hamburgers will be much easier to produce in a lab. In fact, over the past few years, the Dutch government has invested millions in in-vitro meat research in hopes of producing minced meats suitable for fast food.

“It might be easier to produce some muscle proteins in genetically engineered plants, making those plants produce specific meat proteins,” suggests Golovan. “A good lab could do it very easily.”

But that would raise issues with GMO critics, who rail against this tolerance for tampering with natural systems. Also, there is some question as to whether this new meat would actually be considered meat.

Pretanik says national regulatory agencies would first have to determine whether lab-grown chicken would even qualify as chicken. He points out that fake crab and lobster made from fish protein must be labeled “imitation.”

“It raises the question of whether you could call it chicken,” he says.

To Hawkins, the UCF professor, the debate over in-vitro meat detracts from a larger moral question that is often ignored: Why do we need meat at all?

“We need to update our worldview and the kind of role for humans within the biosphere that is appropriate,” she says. “We’re not meant to eat this much meat. We’re not carnivores. I think we have a large population who does not think or ask about what is morally wrong.”

Hawkins says she finds the debate over in-vitro meat “rather strange.”

“Why do you want to have something like that?” she asks.

A version of this story appeared in NOW magazine. Additional reporting by Deanna Morey.


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