I am an inveterate Midwesterner. I eat meat. My friends and family think I’m strange because our family has meatless dinners at least twice a week. When I was growing up dinner was meat and a potato–either fried, mash, or baked. Sometimes Mom would throw on a canned green veg that only Dad would eat and that convinced me until my thirties that vegetables were to be avoided at all costs.
I was raised on a farm, so I had no illusions about where meat comes from. I was a 4H kid, so I had the experience of raising a pet and watching it enter the giant semi truck full of other animals destined for the stockyards and then the packing house. I also had the experience of delivering my pet to the packing house and into the hands of men wearing bloodied aprons. In 4H we learned where different cuts of meat came from by placing our hands all over our animals. Maybe I had some distance here because I raised lambs and did not, and still don’t really, eat lamb or mutton. But we raised a pig or two and I had and have no problem with pork.
So when I heard this story about meat being grown in petri dishes on Fresh Air, http://www.npr.org/2011/05/18/136402034/burgers-from-a-lab-the-world-of-in-vitro-meat, I was surprised at how visceral a reaction I had. As the guest described it, they take stem cells from whichever animal they’re trying to replicate. He kept calling them meat cells, which I don’t ever remember learning about in my biology class. Finally he said muscle cell and I felt the vomit begin to surge. When he described how they stimulate the muscle cells, with electrical impulses, and the way the muscle cells rest in the petri dishes on little foam beds, I began a real fight with the idea of eating meat. When Terry Gross referred to the cells as twitching in the petri dish, the guest reacted against this language and said they were stimulated. I nearly had to pull over. Part of the impetus for growing meat in a lab is to avoid the cruelty of factory farms, but something is inherently wrong with a world in which we harvest stem cells from animals in order to grow meat in a lab where we have to stimulate muscles with electrical impulses in order to consume ground meat. I thought immediately of my vegetarian friends and knew they would be nodding their heads because this story pulled the veil away from our relationship with meat. The raw carnivorous nature of the desire to eat another creature’s muscles laid bare by the language of the lab.
In a world where we’re talking about local, sustainable food and becoming reconnected to the food cycle, meat in a petri dish seems like a move in the wrong direction. I, for one, will be forced to become a vegetarian the day I see lab-produced meat as the only real option at the butcher’s counter. Or should I say the technician’s counter? That’s just a step I’m not willing to take.