Can meat-eaters get their juicy steaks without a single cow ever being killed? That's the dream of one animal rights group, and they're putting their money where their tofu-and-sprouts-loving mouths are.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is no longer just encouraging people to avoid meat. Now the organization is offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can create meat in a lab.
Earlier this week, PETA offered the prize to the first person to produce commercially viable in vitro meat at a competitive price. Simply put, in vitro, or "cultured," meat is created from cells taken from an animal. The cells are then grown in a lab as meat without the messy process of raising and killing livestock.
"There are always going to be people who say, I don't care. I want my steak," PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk told ABCNEWS.com. "Fine. Let's escalate the commercial production of lab-grown steak so you can have the steak where it won't hurt anyone."
While Newkirk likes the meat because it allows meat-eaters to partake without harming animals, nutritionists and even animal rights activists believe the potential innovation could face its own challenges, both ethically and commercially.
Researchers have been investigating the possibilities of lab-grown meat for years but have yet to make the kind of advances that could bring something like mass-grown lab meat to market. Newkirk hopes that the prize will be just the kind of thing that could kick-start research that she says is going on at NASA and at Scandinavian universities.
"So we thought, let's just light a fire," Newkirk said. "People are stunned we would do this, but it's practical."
There is a limit to the prize. Winners would have to put their plan into motion by 2012.
Whether test-tube meat can become a reality in just four years is questionable, according to researchers.
"What it's going to take is a lot of money to develop the technique to do this," said Douglas McFarland, a South Dakota State University professor who researches cellular muscle growth and co-wrote a 2005 paper on cultured meat. "Others have done it with small, very small strains of muscle tissue. ... But with something like what PETA is looking at, it would have to be a large 3-D structure."
McFarland first became interested in cultured meat for its interstellar potential.
"My interest back when we wrote that paper was in having a protein source for long-term space travel. ... So we could maybe have plants providing nutrients to grow muscle cells. Muscle protein is an extremely efficient and nutritious product," McFarland said. "Engineering protein with muscle could be used for a source of protein for people who have allergies."
Dr. Vladimir Mironov, Tan Chin Tuan Fellow at Nanyang Technical University and an in vitro meat researcher, said it's not the technology that will be a problem, but rather funding for research.
"I think it is a right move in right direction. But $1 million for development technology at industrial scale is not realistic. It will probably take 10 years and at least $50 to 100 million to develop this technology at industrial scale," Dr. Vladimir Mironov, the Tan Chin Tuan Fellow at Nanyang Technical University and an engineered meat researcher, wrote in an email. "It is naive to believe that at least initially the price for tissue engineered meat will be competitive. It will be very, very, very expensive."
But for Elizabeth DeCoux, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law and a vegetarian for more than 20 years, the potential benefits of cultured meat are all about the animals.
"I think that animals suffer horribly, and we all have an obligation to do something about that," DeCoux said. "I believe that in vitro may hold the latest promise that I've ever known of to eliminate almost all the suffering of food animals."
DeCoux spoke last week at the first symposium on in vitro meat in Norway. As a longtime vegetarian, DeCoux said that she doubts she would switch back to eating meat, but cultured meat might offer an alternative for concerned meat-eaters.
"I think the great effect of in vitro meat is that people who love animals, but who are meat eaters, will switch," she said.
The animal rights' community, however, has been far from unanimous in its reaction to PETA's proposal.
The award caused a "near civil war in our office," Newkirk said. "After all, our job is ... to hammer into people's heads that they don't need flesh and that [it] is morally offensive. So how could we be saying, why don't you eat this lab-grown meat?
"But to me, it's an important thing to do. It isn't hurting anyone. ... You've got exactly what you want, and there are no bad consequences," she continued.
"We have been trying for centuries to get people to stop eating tortured animals. We wanted them to do it by going vegetarian," she said. "But now we have a real chance to get them to switch, and I don't think we can squander that chance over an internal philosophical squabble."
But some nutritionists doubt whether cultured meat would be accepted by consumers and the medical community at large.
"There's a 'yuck factor' involved," said Marion Nestle, the head of New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health. "But whether that yuck factor is greater than the one that is associated with the way we produce animals in this way" remains to be seen, she said.
While Nestle sees philosophical contradictions with PETA's award, she said there are other reasons to consider alternatives to raising animals in traditional ways. For one, it could reduce our carbon footprint by eliminating factory farms, and it's a way to combat the seemingly ever-rising price of food.
But as the organics market grows, Nestle questioned the commercial viability of such a product if it came to market.
"I know a lot of vegetarians who have been lifetime vegetarians, who have started eating meat again because of the availability of humanely raised animals," she said. "I cannot imagine this is going to be the solution. It smacks of soylent green."
In addition to the "fear factor," for Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist and director of the Rose F. Kennedy Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, said in vitro meat would have to pass another hurdle.
"The nutritional content would have to be similar, and it would have to pass both the smell and the taste test," Ayoob said. "There's more to meat than just protein. ... And frankly, if it doesn't taste good, then consumers won't eat it."
According to Ayoob, a huge part of eating is aesthetics.
"Part of the overall appeal of food is something that may not be able to be produced in a petri dish," he said. "You can survive on liquid nutrition. ... We could also have food fed directly to our stomachs. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."