In Vitro Meat: Promises And Challenges

In vitro meat promises to revolutionize meat production and solve some of the most pressing problems associated with factory farming. Can it succeed?

Chef Richard McGeown cooking a burger made from Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht. Credit: David Parry / PA Wire. Source: Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht

Chef Richard McGeown cooking a burger made from Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht. Credit: David Parry / PA Wire. Source: Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht

Scientific and technological developments often have important moral implications. Sometimes they give rise to new concerns; sometimes they redefine old issues; and sometimes they offer practical solutions to tantalizing problems. The science and technology of in vitro meat promises to do at least the third.

In vitro or cultured meat promises to revolutionize meat production. Instead of raising animals in order to kill them for food (typically, in  the morally questionable conditions of factory farming), we can extract a few cells from a living animal and place them in a nutrient-rich growth medium to proliferate until they become meat. The meat produced in this way has never been part of a living animal but it is real meat, as real as the meat people typically consume.

The method is still in its first steps and the costs of production are tremendous: it took $250,000 to produce an in vitro burger in 2013[1]. But as science and technology progress, we may not be far from the day when mass production of in vitro meat becomes possible. And proponents of the method argue that we should devote the resources necessary to bring this day closer, since in vitro meat has significant advantages and promises to offer solutions to pressing problems. The main considerations in favor of in vitro meat are the following: 

  • Animal rights and animal welfare. Even people who believe that killing animals for food is not immoral as such, are often appalled by the treatment of animals in factory farms. By switching from factory-farmed to in vitro meat we could eliminate the suffering of farm animals without giving up on meat altogether, or without adopting more ethical but less massive and more expensive ways of raising livestock. Further, if no animals are killed in the process, the method can address the moral concerns of those who claim that killing animals for food is immoral in itself. In other words, we can address the moral concerns that are usually raised by defenders of vegetarianism, without actually adopting vegetarianism. And this seems as an ideal way of addressing these concerns, since many people may not be willing to stop eating meat altogether. It is no wonder, then, that in vitro meat has been endorsed by many defenders of animals rights, including the famous Australian philosopher Peter Singer.  Singer actually concludes an article in favor of in vitro meat by stating that, 'I haven't eaten meat for 40 years, but if in vitro meat becomes commercially available, I will be pleased to try it.'[2]
  • Environmental concerns. The current system of meat production is harmful for the environment. Factory farming is a major contributor to emissions of greenhouse gases which are responsible for climate change. Further, the system is highly taxing on natural resources, especially land and water. There are estimates that switching to in vitro meat production would cut down more than 90% of greenhouse gases emissions owed to agriculture, and would also reduce enormously land and water use[3].
  • Health benefits. In vitro meat could be healthier and more nutritious than conventionally produced meat. Harmful fats could be removed and the meat could be enriched with 'good' fats like omega-3 or omega-6[4]. In vitro meat could also reduce health hazards associated with conventional meat production, such as dangerous bacteria or diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which are owed to the ways in which animals are raised in conventional factory farms[5].

On the basis of the above considerations, In vitro meat would appear as the ideal solution to the most important problems and concerns associated with the current system of meat production. It significantly reduces or even eliminates animal suffering, environmental damage, and health hazards, without making vegetarianism morally inevitable. Could there be any arguments against its adoption?

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry / PA Wire.Credit: Source: Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht

A cooked burger made from Cultured Beef. Credit: David Parry / PA Wire.Credit: Source: Cultured Beef, University of Maastricht

The costs of in vitro meat production are still enormous, but this problem is expected to be solved through future progress in the underlying science and technology. Some people may find 'lab meat' disgusting, or may consider it 'unnatural' and therefore 'bad'. But it is dubious whether such concerns can be considered as valid reasons against in vitro meat. It is highly questionable whether gut reactions are independently valid reasons against anything. For instance, it is highly questionable whether gut reactions against rape or child abuse are the reasons why such actions are immoral; a lot of people would argue that it is rather the profound immorality of these actions that explains and justifies our reactions to them. Besides, not all people may find 'lab meat' disgusting, while some who do, may ultimately change their feelings as they become familiar it. Further, unfounded fears about 'lad meat' should better be answered by educating people about the  facts, not by treating them as valid reasons against in vitro meat.

Some animal rights advocates have doubted whether in vitro meat production would really harm no animals. Actually, the production of the first lab burgers did harm animals: stem cells were removed from a slaughtered cow and the growth medium contained bovine fetus blood, obtained by killing a pregnant cow to remove the fetus[6]. However, proponents of in vitro meat argue that killing animals is not necessary for in vitro meat production: The cells can be extracted from a living animal, and they can proliferate in growth media that do not involve animal ingredients[7].

Another argument against the method is that in vitro meat will fail to bring factory farming to its end, since there will still be demand for animal products such as eggs and milk[8]. A possible reply to this objection is that in vitro meat removes at least part of the reasons for the existence of factory farms, and a partial solution is better than no solution. After all, further progress in science and technology might even make possible the production of in vitro animal products as well.

A quite intriguing argument against in vitro meat is the following. If we can produce animal meat without hurting any living animal, then we could use the same method to produce human meat without hurting any actual, living human being. Most people would be appalled by the idea of producing and consuming in vitro human meat, even if no human being would be killed or hurt in the process. And this reaction seems to have a solid moral basis. The reason we find this idea appalling is because we cannot see our fellow human beings as a food source. And the reason we cannot see them as a food source is because of the moral value we attach to them. The problem with in vitro animal meat production is that it encourages us to continue seeing animal flesh and ultimately the animals themselves as a food source, as beings we can use to our satisfaction. In other words, we persist in our failure to assign animals the moral value that is proper to them, and this attitude is the basis of our mistreatment of other species[9].

Besides, we can very well live on a purely vegan diet. In vitro meat would encourage us to keep considering meat and animal products as indispensable food sources. And as long as this attitude persists, animals will be at risk. After all, some people may still prefer the 'real thing' instead of the 'lab substitute'. Further, meat eaters desire to consume various kinds of animal flesh, so a fairly large number of research projects would have to be completed in order to satisfy all these desires. But why should we keep wasting valuable resources to produce various kinds of in vitro meat when we already have the vegan alternative?[10]

These are some of the main arguments that have been advanced for and against in vitro meat. As the relevant science and technology develop, we can expect the debate to keep unfolding.




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