Self-Cannibalism and the Extreme Possibilities of Cell Cultured Agriculture
As an avid researcher, I’m constantly tuned in to progress being made on the stem-cell-derived meat front. We’re still very much on track for widespread production and consumption, given the investments we’re seeing from major players, including individuals and even meat processing companies.
With the outlook for lab-grown, often called slaughter-free meat, wide open, it’s time to take this to a new level and push the envelope of our stem-cell lab programs for the benefit of humankind.
The New Frontier for Lab-Grown Animal Products
It all starts with stem cells, and where we get these stem cells from is up to us.
Food animals, exotic animals, yes, we’re on a clear path to stock our refrigerators and our zoos. We can start with platypus cells and grow platypus meat, and we can harvest orangutan, hornet, and bald eagle cells and also grow … orangutan, hornet, and bald eagle meat.
This kind of cellular agriculture opens the door to extreme thinking and extreme possibilities because anything that grows in nature can be grown inside a cell-cultured bioreactor.
Naturally, this raises the question of meat from humans? After all, scientists are already growing human organs from a person’s own stem cells to re-implant and hopefully save lives.
Clearly, this raises more than a few ethical issues, but could we, and should we, grow human meat as an edible food product? The next logical question is, can we grow meat from the stem cells in our own bodies? And would eating that meat be considered a form of self-cannibalism?
What if it was found to be healthier? Or cured certain diseases? Or was proven to extend human longevity?
And on that point, the cross-consumption of human flesh by other humans has been shown to cause serious, strange, and deadly health issues in remote civilizations, such as the Fare Tribe in Papua New Guinea.
While this may sound extreme to you today, we will be dealing with an eclectic set of these kinds of issues over the coming years.
At the same time, cell culture bioreactors will also be used to grow non-edible materials, such as lab-grown leather, plastic, and rubber. Think in terms of exotic materials such as tarantula skin seats, hedgehog jackets, and anteater shoes.
If we start with the stem cells of Hollywood celebrities, we could grow designer label leathers and produce high-end accessories like Hugh Jackman purses, Jennifer Aniston furniture, Mark Wahlberg wallets, or Emma Stone vests.
Biological and health considerations aside, are there ethical issues with eating our own stem-cell-based flesh? Should this kind of self-cannibalization be considered illegal? Further, is there any basis to consider it unethical to self-cannibalize like this? Or is it enough to prohibit the pursuit of personal flesh farming based on the “ICK” factor?
Food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun, but it does raise some interesting personal freedom questions.
What Else is Possible? Blood?
Quite possibly, for a variety of objective and subjective reasons, the practice of eating our own stem-cell-based flesh is a bridge too far. So, let’s back off one level.
Will we be able to grow blood, and more specifically, our own blood?
Having extra liters of our own stem-cell-derived blood on hand in case of an emergency could be a good thing, especially if we have a rare blood type. We may see labs in the future that store our stem cells and periodically, produce several fresh liters of our own blood and store it for us for our own personal use.
And since the acceptance of infusions of human blood doesn’t seem to be as person-specific as the consumption of flesh, why not use this process to maintain stocks of blood types in our blood banks? In fact, in the future, the practice of human blood donation will seem somewhat archaic, if not barbaric.
But blood type aside, is all blood equal? Studies have shown that older people who are infused with “young” blood become more resilient and energized. If that’s the case, then what about finding the perfect designer match – stem cells from the blood of a five-year-old Catalonian prodigy who is the descendant of a Nobel Prize winner and lives on the island of Majorca?
Growing blood could be far more than a life-saving function; it will quickly become a vast new industry of life-enhancing possibilities. We no longer will have to confine our transfusion options to those who have donated. Instead, we can begin testing which culture, ethnic type, age group, and genealogical tree a person comes from and make offers for blood derived from that candidate’s stem cells.
If the idea of stem-cell-derived meat (human or otherwise) or human blood is still too much to fathom, just remember that this stem-cell technology will ultimately be applied in a variety of other situations.
How about growing rhino horns or elephant tusks? Will it be possible to grow an entire vat full of horn or tusk material to put poachers out of business? Or for that matter, how about stem-cell-derived wolf fur, buffalo hide, or whale skin to help preserve those magnificent creatures?
Once again, anything that grows in nature can be grown inside a cell-cultured bioreactor, so we don’t need to confine our thinking to things that have been used in the past. Even growing large volumes of fingernails, teeth, scales, shells, eyelashes, and feathers may have uses we’ve never dreamed of.
Over the coming decade, entrepreneurs will be launching tens of thousands of new businesses based on bioreactor technologies and material science will become the hot new field of study.
Saving the World with Cellular Agriculture
It’s fun and interesting to look at unique micro-applications of food chain innovation from cell-derived processes. But the big focus for the future of stem cell technology in the near term will be on food sources.
At the macro level, cultured meat technology, combined with others like precision fermentation-derived microbial proteins, and good “old-fashioned” plant-based meat products, could fundamentally change our food supply in a way that wouldn’t dramatically affect our consumption experiences but improve our world in many other ways.
In theory, for example, we could obtain all the raw beef we need from the replicable stem cells of one exceptional steer or heifer, cultivated without even harming the animal. Think of all the other animals on all the feed lots and pastures around the world and how we could reuse or re-forest that space.
Then there’s the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and methane from an animal’s digestive process) and animal waste in our streams and groundwater.
This stem cell-derived food would be healthier for us, without the traces of growth hormones and antibiotics that make their way into our bodies.
Some researchers point out that cultured meat products just don’t taste quite the same as traditionally grown meat. They say they’re missing a “certain something.”
I would suggest that that certain something may very well be the imperfections in our farm-raised animals that we’ve gotten used to and assume to be normal.