Animal-free meat?

Eating animals and eating meat may no longer be the same thing if anyone takes PETA up on its $1 million offer.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering $1 million to anyone who can produce meat in a lab by 2012. The meat has to be identical in nutrition, taste, texture and appearance to naturally grown meat. This in vitro meat is made from animal cells grown in a lab rather than having to deal with that whole raise-and-slaughter thing. It could also help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution caused by factory farming, and, with increased control over bacteria and disease, fears of mad cow disease and other meat scares could practically disappear.

However, fears of the new technology itself are another factor. “I cannot imagine this is going to be the solution,” Marion Nestle, head of New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health, told ABC News. “It smacks of soylent green.”

With beakless, caged chickens and cows on steroids, current methods of meat production are hardly natural or cruelty-free. But while some reject industrial farming by taking a greater interest in organic food and Certified Humane meats, PETA is calling for scientists to head to the lab.

Scientists began working with “in vitro proteins” about a decade ago to make food for astronauts. The first edible in vitro muscle protein was created from a goldfish in 2000, according to Time magazine, but no one has been able to synthesize blood vessels or create larger, three-dimensional pieces of meat.

However, the consensus from experts during the first in vitro meat consortium symposium in Norway in early April is that it can be done—with more time, more research, better technology, and a lot more money. An expected five to 10 years of research is needed, followed by a long approval process. And the funding needs are far greater than $1 million. Fifty to $100 million is more like it, Dr. Vladimir Mironov, an in vitro meat researcher at Nanyang Technical University, told ABC News. He said it would cost $1 million just to create a 250 gram piece of beef.

While few expect to see the meat by the 2012 deadline, in vitro researchers and PETA hope the interest sparked by what some are calling PETA’s “publicity stunt” pays off in future funding for the technology.