People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants to pay a million dollars for fake meat — even if it has caused a "near civil war" within the organization.
The organization said it would announce plans today for a $1 million prize to the "first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012."
The idea of getting the next Chicken McNugget out of a test tube is not new. For several years, scientists have worked to develop technologies to grow tissue cultures that could be consumed like meat without the expense of land or feed and the disease potential of real meat. An international symposium on the topic was held this month in Norway. The tissue, once grown, could be shaped and given texture with the kinds of additives and structural agents that are now used to give products like soy burgers a more meaty texture.
New Harvest, a nonprofit organization formed to promote the field, says on its Web site, "Because meat substitutes are produced under controlled conditions impossible to maintain in traditional animal farms, they can be safer, more nutritious, less polluting and more humane than conventional meat."
Jason Matheny, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University who formed New Harvest, said the idea of a prize for researchers was promising. Citing the example of the Ansari X Prize, a competition that produced the first privately financed human spacecraft, Matheny said, "they inspire more dollars spent on a research problem than the prize represents."
A founder of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, said she had been hoping to get the organization involved in advancing in vitro meat technology for at least a decade.
But, Newkirk said, the decision to sponsor a prize caused "a near civil war in our office," since so many PETA members are repulsed by the thought of eating animal tissue, even if no animals are killed.
Lisa Lange, a vice president of the organization, said she was part of the heated exchange. "My main concern is, as the largest animal rights organization in the world, it's our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat." Lange added, "I remember saying I would be much more comfortable promoting eating roadkill."
Newkirk said the disagreement was natural, adding, "We will have members leave us over this."
"People say animal rights people can't agree," she said. "Well, human beings can't agree. In any social cause community, there are people who strive for purity."
Her goal, she said, was more pragmatic. "We don't mind taking uncomfortable positions if it means that fewer animals suffer." In that way, she said, "in vitro meat is a godsend."
For some already working in the field, the news was greeted with a wary welcome.
Henk P. Haagsman, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and an in vitro meat research pioneer, said he welcomed the prize competition.
"It will hopefully spark more interest to invest in the technology," Haagsman said.
But he said he would not like to see the field dominated by the animal welfare issue, since environmental and public health issues are such important "drivers for this research." The Netherlands has put $5 million into in vitro meat studies.
Another scientist at Utrecht, Bernard Roelen, said via e-mail that he was "rather surprised" by news of the competition, but said that even with strong financing, it would be extremely difficult to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat before 2012. Roelen added, "For me as a researcher, the announcement does not mean so much."
Why not? "I do research because I want to understand fundamental mechanisms," he said, "not to gain fortune."