The technology was terrifying.
James Watson, Nobel-Prize-winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said it would lead to “all sorts of bad scenarios.” But not just “bad.” He stated unequivocally that “all hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.” It was condemned by scientists and clergy alike. The Vatican decried it as “the younger sister of eugenics” and the science magazine Nova called it “the biggest threat since the atom bomb.” People were determined to stop it. The American Medical Assn. wanted to halt all research in the field. Individuals involved with the technology received sacks of hate mail, some doused in something that looked like blood. A bomb threat forced people to evacuate. A family had to move.
What was this monstrous threat that caused such widespread panic? In vitro fertilization, in which scientists fertilize an egg in a lab and then implant it into a woman’s womb.
Now in vitro fertilization, or IVF, is positively mundane, and many young people at least would be surprised to hear it had ever been controversial. Although some Catholic ethicists and clergy continue to raise objections — and the Church has not really softened its stance — tens of thousands of couples turn to IVF annually in order to conceive.
This year, the first IVF baby turned 40. The procedure is so commonplace that 1.5% of the babies born in Western Europe, North America and Australia owe their existence to the technology.
This means that if you walk around any school of more than a few hundred kids, you will probably encounter students conceived using this “Frankenbaby” technology — a procedure that called into question “the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment,” according to University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass.
Although the ferocity of the initial reaction to IVF was extreme, an angry backlash is the norm for new technologies, even those without the moral implications of IVF. It is nearly impossible to find a technology that wasn’t met with fear and derision. Walk backwards through time and almost every next big thing was attacked and vilified by some portion of the population.
The internet, computers, television, movies, radio, telephones, ice makers (yes, really), the telegraph, the automobile, trains, clocks. Even books were going to destroy the oral tradition, according to Plato, and take time away from more important pursuits like courting and family.
And that’s why I’m not concerned when polls show some portion of the population is no more eager to accept in vitro meat than their grandparents were to accept in vitro babies.
In vitro meat, commonly referred to as clean meat, is grown directly from cells, no animal necessary. The technology requires far fewer resources than raising animals, who are not very efficient as grain-to-meat conversion machines. It’s called clean meat as a nod to clean energy — clean energy is energy that is better for the environment, and clean meat is meat that is better for the environment.
No matter how scary pollsters make their question — “lab meat”! — a significant percentage of people are eager to eat meat produced without the animal. Indeed, even the most pessimistic polls show 20% to 30% of people willing to switch over to clean meat. That’s 40 times the size of the current plant-based meat market, worth $40 billion to $60 billion per year in the United States alone. And clean meat won’t be marketed in a vacuum. Rather, it will be sold as the alternative to conventional meat from industrial animal agriculture.
Polls consistently show that the public really doesn’t like industrial farms. Last year, Oklahoma State University researchers found that 47% of those they surveyed want to ban slaughterhouses, and 47% support banning factory farming. Fully 68% said they had discomfort with the way animals are used in the food industry. Once we can offer those 68% of people the animal meat they want without that discomfort, clean meat will be the obvious choice.
There will always be Luddites who decry and resist new technologies. That’s to be expected. But the rest of us will happily enjoy conscience-clearing clean meat.