I was thinking today about the efforts to grow skin in the laboratory. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, mainly for things like burn victims, etc. It got me started wondering about growing animal skin as well. At some point in the future I imagine that we will have enough knowledge of the genome and cloning to really begin to design custom-made life. Imagine being able to grow leather in a petri dish. It might even eventually be cheaper to do than having to nurture and deal with the whole animal, only to kill it and strip it of its flesh for our belts and handbags and shoes.

Before going any further, I will state for the record that I do eat meat, and do not feel guilty about it. Other animals eat meat, humans are clearly omnivorous, end of story. However I do believe that most of us eat way too much meat, and animals should not be forced to suffer unduly or in a cruel manner. This post is not about animal testing, so I will refrain from offering an opinion one way or another about that subject.

At any rate, once I began ruminating about football fields of cowhide, growing without the cow, I took the next step. What about one day growing meat? Once we truly understand how to control the DNA of  complex creatures like cattle, why not focus on the parts we want, and turn off the things we don’t need? Eliminate the brain, the limbs (or at least the hooves), the horns, probably even the internal organs. We could just grow meat (with as few bones as required), in vats of nutrient solutions. And with cloning, there could be huge farms of steaks, chops, etc., all identical.

While this may conjure up bizarre images of grotesque bovine mutants, cared for by robots a la the human energy farms seen in The Matrix, it may be more effective than the current approach. No need for grazing land, no need to find use for the extra bits (yes, I know the hooves, horns and offal go into things like animal feed and hot dogs, but that’s probably more to do with having the raw material around to begin with).

And since so much of our resources and concerns, from food and water to global warming is currently tied up in grazing land, animal feed, shelter, etc., it would be important that the system used in creating and maintaining these new Animal-less farms be less demanding of resources, greener in output than our current models.

Of course, we’re a long way from having huge tanks of brainless, legless meat being grown to feed the masses, but it sounds like something that should be possible eventually. I’m wondering where people who take a stand on ethical rights and treatment for animals would feel about it. One of their arguments include the glib line, “never eat anything with a face”. Howabout with no head at all? Cloned meat is probably blurring the line of what an ‘animal’ is. But it wouldn’t be suffering, or exploited (at least not as an animal, the product certainly would be). Would people who oppose eating meat for these reasons be tempted back to hamburgers and sausages?

It’s a fascinating idea, and I don’t have a clue as to how they would respond. To my coldly logical thinking, it would be the best of both worlds – plenty of protein-laden food, and whole herds of beasts spared the chop. The question arises then, would we need so many cows and pigs and sheep? The answer would be no, but I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t just let their numbers dwindle naturally to a smaller representative population.

Still, in a world where people think GM crops are the work of the devil, who knows what kind of debates would rage regarding this.