On May 16, 2013, a particular news item caught my eye: “Shmeat: Reducing Animal Cruelty or Defeating the Purpose of a Sustainable Diet?” written by Sarah Jugovic (http: //pghenvironmental.wordpress. com/2013/05/16/shmeatreducing- animal-cruelty-ordefeating- the-purpose-of-asustainable- diet/).
The article explains that shmeat, also known as “in vitro” meat (i.e., test-tube flesh), is cruelty free – it is a lab-grown food product using animal stem cells to create an edible solid without killing the creature. Or so they say.
Shmeat has been in the works for more than a decade, the article tells us, and was conceived, in its present form, by Dr. Mark Post, a professor in the physiology department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, with funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
The process is complicated: Post initially takes stem cells from the neck muscle of discarded cattle found at slaughterhouses. After this, he uses a serum from fetal calves to grow and nurture muscle cells that are stabilized on a sheet (hence, “shmeat”) with nutrients and protein. After billions of cells are thus developed, they synthesize a protein on their own, which eventually becomes shmeat. Or, as some call it, “Frankenburger.”
This almost sci-fi–like scenario piqued my interest, and so I researched it further, finding a more informative article from a week earlier in The New York Times (May 12, 2013), entitled “Building a $325,000 Burger.” There, author Henry Fountain informs us that there is much to praise in laboratoryproduced meat, for it would significantly reduce the wasteful amounts of water, land, and energy used in cultivating real animals for their flesh and by-products. Further, it would reduce the emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, helping us fight global warming. Such environmental arguments, writes Fountain, will become more pronounced as the demand for meat increases worldwide.
Sure, each piece of meat costs six figures, but the price will come down as the process catches on.
That being said, all is not so easy: Post’s cultured meat will always depend on muscle tissue to obtain new cells. The implications here are farreaching, as journalist S. E. Cupp reports in the New York Daily News (August 7, 2013). Her article, “The Raw Truth About Lab Meat,” reveals the loopholes of shmeat, letting us know that it is hardly cruelty free and, more, that there are numerous risks involved in its consumption. “But as of now,” she writes, “the petri meat (which I will now call ‘meatri’) requires fetal calf serum, which is obtained by slaughtering pregnant cows.”
Discover magazine concurs:
In fact, of all the fantastic claims of lab-grown meat, the most far-fetched given current technology is that in vitro meat will be crueltyfree. In vitro meat proposals imagine a “donor herd” of cows that will give some cells to make meat without having to be slaughtered, so yes, the first in vitro hamburger . . . will be made of cells that started out as just a few cow muscle stem cells from a still-living cow. But the donor cells aren’t the only animal product needed to grow in vitro hamburgers; the growth medium that provides nutrients, vitamins, and growth hormones to the cells is currently made with a mixture of sugars and amino acids supplemented with fetal bovine serum—literally the blood of unborn cows. (http:// blogs.discovermagazine. com/crux/2012/04/24/ steak-of-the-art-the-fatalflaws- of-in-vitro-meat/#. UgP78eBkjiH)
So what is the advantage here? Murder is still murder. Let it be clear: Post uses regular cell-culture to grow his animal myosatellite cells – and these necessarily come from slaughtered cows.
Some may argue that Post’s pseudo burger, while still causing harm to sentient beings, will kill fewer animals than conventional meat-eating. But if it is wrong to eat meat, then killing fewer animals might be better in some ways, but it’s still wrong. Whether one is a diamond thief or a cucumber thief, he is still a thief, and he is still misusing God’s creation by harming His creatures.
Is it wrong to kill animals for food? Of course it is. As Prabhupada says, “Why should you kill the cow? Let the cow be protected. You can take the cow’s milk and use it for making so many nutritious, delicious preparations. Aside from that, as far as meat-eating is concerned, every cow will die – so you just wait a while, and there will be so many dead cows. Then you can take all the dead cows and eat. So how is this a bad proposal? If you say, ‘You are restraining us from meat-eating’ – no, we don’t restrain you. We simply ask you, ‘Don’t kill. When the cow is dead, you can eat it.’” Shmeat is still killing, and killing is wrong.
Unnatural, No Matter How It’s Made
Additionally, the product contains antibiotics and anti-fungal agents harmful to humans. So although shmeat is grown in the antiseptic environment of a laboratory, it is still problematic. And Post’s proposed future resolutions (Post-dated checks, we might say) may never come into being. For example, some say that in the future it might be possible to make shmeat by using algae, thus avoiding the killing of animals altogether. But this is another postdated check, and there is little reason to expect it to happen.
In any case, shmeat will always be an unnatural, scientifically contrived product, no matter how it is made. According to the Bhagavad-gita (17.10), such highly artificial foods are in the mode of ignorance and thus disadvantageous for those on the spiritual path. Meanwhile, shmeat producers still have to kill animals.
“Killing cows and spoiling the land,” Prabhupada tells us, “will not solve the problem of food. This is not civilization. Uncivilized men living in the jungle and being unqualified to produce food by agriculture and cow protection may eat animals, but a perfect human society advanced in knowledge must learn how to produce first-class food simply by agriculture and protection of cows.”
Besides, shmeat is just creepy. Catherine Mayer, writing in Time magazine (August 5, 2013), suggests that shmeat is only one step removed from Soylent Green. This refers to a futuristic sci-fi movie from the 1970s in which overpopulation, poverty, and food shortages force hungry workers to depend on a highly processed food known as Soylent Green. Eventually, the main protagonist discovers that the miracle food saving their lives is created from the remains of human corpses.
In fact, Mayer writes, Kenneth A. Cook, president of the U.S. health organization known as the Environmental Working Group, says that lab-produced flesh may never catch on because of the “ick factor.” In other words, who wants to eat food produced in a test tube? It is simply, well, icky. Those who pursue progressive values in life would never think of eating test-tube meat – or any meat for that matter. It is simply inappropriate for humans.
As Prabhupada says, “Scientifically, your teeth are meant for eating vegetables. The tiger has teeth for eating meat. Nature has made it like that. It has to kill another. . . . Therefore he has got nails, he has got teeth, he has got strength. But you have no such strength. You cannot kill a cow like that, pouncing like a tiger. You have to make a slaughterhouse and sit down at your home. Somebody may slaughter, and you can eat very nicely. What is this? Do like the tiger. Pounce upon a cow and eat it. You cannot do that.”
Cow Protection in Action
The first cow-protection program Srila Prabhupada established in the Western world was in the rural community of ISKCON New Vrindaban – named after Krishna's village in north India and nestled in the hills of West Virginia. Prabhupada wrote to his disciple Hayagriva in June 1968: “Krishna by His practical example taught us to give all protection to the cows and that should be the main business of New Vrindaban.”
Similar ISKCON projects are underway in Gita-nagari (in Pennsylvania), in the UK and Ireland, and in Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Sweden, and Hungary, among other places. Far from looking for new ways to exploit animals and eat their flesh, a la shmeat, ISKCON seeks to protect them, recognizing that the same life force exists in their bodies as it does in ours.
In pursuit of this realization, Prabhupada suggested a life close to the land: “So these duties are there in New Vrindaban, and we shall live there independently, simply by raising cows, grains, fruits, and flowers.” This is the natural life of a Krishna conscious devotee. Whether in a rural environment or in a big city, he or she lives in goodness. No need to manipulate nature to create unnatural products – the devotee enjoys Krishna's natural bounty and uses it in divine service.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.