It’s kind of strange when suddenly there are a lot of articles on growing meat in a vat (it’s probably because there was a recent conference in Norway on the topic). Even we posted on it last week and today the New York Times tells us that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – scientists excepted), the militant and sometimes violent animal rights group, is offering a $1 million prize for the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012”:
Jason Matheny, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University who formed New Harvest, said the idea of a prize for researchers was promising. Citing the example of the Ansari X Prize, a competition that produced the first privately financed human spacecraft, Mr. Matheny said, “they inspire more dollars spent on a research problem than the prize represents.”
A founder of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, said she had been hoping to get the organization involved in advancing in vitro meat technology for at least a decade.
But, Ms. Newkirk said, the decision to sponsor a prize caused “a near civil war in our office,” since so many PETA members are repulsed by the thought of eating animal tissue, even if no animals are killed.
Lisa Lange, a vice president of the organization, said she was part of the heated exchange. “My main concern is, as the largest animal rights organization in the world, it’s our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat.” Ms. Lange added, “I remember saying I would be much more comfortable promoting eating roadkill.” (New York Times; hat tip Boingboing)
Most observers think the deadline of 2012 is not achievable. The technical barriers are too great. Some scientists quoted in the Times article thought this was not primarily an animal rights issue anyway but more a public health and environmental issue. Nobody in the scientific community, at least those working at the bench, want to make common cause with PETA.
I will say, for my part, that the public health and environmental issues are important but so are the animal welfare issues. Along with philosopher Peter Singer I don’t believe animals have rights but I do believe they have interests, and not to be treated cruelly is certainly one of them. Should we get to the point where the foodstuff we call meat can be produced in ways that don’t involve raising and killing sentient animals I will be glad. I like eat and I eat it but I am not happy about it. And if we ever get to that point I also expect people will look back on the gigantic industrial killing machines we call meatpacking houses and wonder what kind of people we were, just as we look back on slave holders as somewhat less than human.
When and if that day comes. I don’t expect it to be by 2012.