Could Test-Tube Turkey be a Thanksgiving Staple?

Pass the petri broth? Cultured turkey could be the eco-friendly dinner of the future. Photos: (left) Dustin Day, (right) Alcinoe, via wikimedia commons.

Test-tube turkey sounds like a science experiment gone terribly wrong, but it could be an ethical and environmental breakthrough.

Imagine a future when the turkey on your plate was never truly a bird at all. Instead, its story began as a turkey stem cell, grown to a few million cells in a petri dish, then raised into a nice, juicy hunk of muscle tissue. This meat, designed to taste and feel just like any other bite of turkey, was raised entirely on water, animal-free nutrients, sunlight, and CO2. To keep the cells alive, the muscle was periodically jolted with electricity.

If it sounds creepy, writer Michael Specter observes in an interview with NPR, “There is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat.”

Specter, who wrote about cultured meat for The New Yorker in May, is hitting on one of the many solutions that “test-tube meat” could offer. PETA is among the proponents, and for those concerned with the unchecked cruelties of factory farming, cultured meat is an appealing solution.

It’s also a green option. Researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam published a report in July comparing the environmental impact of cultured as opposed to conventional meat. Among the potential benefits:
- 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions
- 7-45% lower energy use
- 99% lower land use
- 82-96% lower water use

In the case of the Thanksgiving bird, even if cultured turkey required more energy to produce than raising the real thing, it would still use dramatically less land and water. In addition, the authors proposed turning former farmland into carbon sequestration areas to make cultured meat effectively carbon neutral.

Despite the benefits, test-tube turkey is unlikely to happen any time soon. A workshop in Sweden this September brought twenty-five interdisciplinary scientists from around the world together to discuss how to proceed in cultured meat research. While much of the discussion highlighted the possibilities—such as reducing cases of avian flu and agricultural run-off—it also highlighted the technical unknowns involved in growing cultured meat on a mass scale. Ultimately, the process itself is expensive and funding for research is low.

Whether cultured meat is the Thanksgiving dinner of the future or not, the Perch has got all the facts on Thanksgiving present. Don't forget to visit our Thanksgiving roundup for recipes, tales of tofurky, and a history of cranberries. 

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