beyond meat
Opinion

Can Cultured Meat End Our Meat Culture?

“The distinguishing mark of man is the hand, the instrument with which he does all his mischief” – George Orwell, Animal Farm

By 2017 it is arguably no longer man’s hand which does the mischief but rather his brain. The average citizen no longer engages with agriculture beyond seeing the smiling cows on milk-cartons and training their own synapses to link this to a feeling of content. This disengagement with the reality of the meat and dairy industry has perpetuated the demand for animal produce regardless of widely circulated insights into the horrors of modern farming. While vegetarians and vegans disregard the argument for ‘ethical’ meat as a form of self-deception, ‘uncomfortable’ meat-eaters are able to suppress what they know about the meat industry in the decisive moment of purchase. Our modern supermarket system has made it so easy to disconnect animal slaughter and the cellophane-wrapped chicken’s breasts that someone who calls themselves an animal lover and would like to be vegetarian fails to make the move in practice. (Patrick D.Hopkins, Austin Dacey) There are of course a myriad of soy and wheat-gluten alternatives to chicken nuggets, hamburgers, sausages etc however these lack a certain authenticity to meat eaters and are most convincing when imitating processed meat which arguably gains all its flavour from seasoning and additives anyways. How then, can we convince a population raised on the belief that meat is a necessity to a substantial diet to abstain from the cruelty which the meat industry inflicts upon billions of animals a year?

The answer was, according to Peta, to come from science. In 2008 Peta offered a prize of $1 million to the first developer of marketable lab-grown meat. (www.peta.org) While this deadline proved to be too optimistic, Peta invested the prize money in further research as they still believed in the powers of lab-grown meat to drastically reduce animal suffering. In 2013 hopes were high amongst vegans, vegetarians and ‘uncomfortable’ meat-eaters alike, that the first spark towards cruelty-free meat had been ignited. Mark Post, a researcher of Maastricht University presented the first edible lab-grown beef-burger to the public. (The Guardian, 6 August 2013) This burger was cultured from muscle stem cells from which tissue was ground and bound together to produce the ground beef structure of a burger. This scientific leap took three months to engineer and cost no less than 250,000 Euros. Clearly the time and money invested must be reduced before any such in-vitro burger could become marketable. Furthermore, the tasters who tried Post’s in-vitro burger were disappointed by the bland and rather dry taste of the meat. (The Guardian, 6 August 2013) It seems then that this first attempt at a ‘real’ but cruelty-free burger is no more convincing than its soy or seitan counterparts. Furthermore, Post’s burger was not truly cruelty-free as the cell-division was initiated using foetal bovine serum. (The Guardian, 20 September 2017) Having been joined by a number of other start-ups such as Memphis-Meats and Finless Foods, the race to develop a faster, more economic and less cruel method of growing meat and fish in labs began.

Watching this rapid development in the engineering of in-vitro meat products raises questions amongst the vegetarian and vegan community. If the lab-grown burger was developed without the foetal bovine serum would it be morally sound to consume? Is the research into lab-grown meat worth supporting? Peta publically declared themselves in favour by financially supporting the research into lab-grown meat. Furthermore, Peter Singer the renowned philosopher and author of ‘Animal Liberation’, published his opinion in favour of the development of in-vitro meat in the Guardian newspaper. (The Guardian, 5 August 2013) Singer argues that despite vegans and vegetarians potentially being opposed to eating the lab-grown meat themselves, they should applaud the development for its potential to decrease the net animal and human suffering. Being a preference utilitarian philosopher, Singer believes in the morality of options with the highest outcome of happiness and lowest outcome of suffering. This then naturally equates to industrial farming being less morally sound than in-vitro meat production. However, this reasoning may be challenged. After all, it would be false to say that the moral dilemma had only two solutions. In reality there is a third: veganism. Furthermore, philosophical debate has concerned itself with the potential reduction of overall happiness due to the loss of species with the eradication of farming altogether. Anders Sandberg argues for this exact reason that ‘humane farming practices’ are morally more supportable than in-vitro meat production according to a utilitarian approach. (Anders Sandberg, 8 September 2015) Although, Sandberg does admit that it would be impossible to feed our ever-growing population with what he calls ‘humane-meat’ and so his argument breaks down. The argument for an ideal world in which animals are happy to offer up their flesh in return for the good treatment and initial gift of life they have received must be written off as a utopian phantasy. I see a similar issue in the hope of in-vitro meat to reduce animal suffering drastically.

Though it is an awestriking feat of scientific advancement to produce muscle tissue in a laboratory, the gap between the petri dish and the common plate simply seems too large. I do not believe that lab-grown meat, even if made affordable and marketable will replace the industrial farming industry. Studies conducted on the attitudes towards replacing industry meat with lab-grown alternatives have shown that though people are curious to try the novelty, they are reluctant if not defiant to make it part of their regular diet. (Matti Wilks, Clive J.C. Philips, 6.2.17) The consumers participating in the practice showed that the major concerns with the lab-grown meat was over taste, ethics and price. At the same time, the survey showed that nearly half of the sample would be willing to eat in-vitro meat over soy substitutes. I would argue however, that rather than being a confirmation of the potential in lab-grown meat, it is a call to work on improving the taste of plant-based alternatives and working on a more ethical and environmentally friendly soy industry. In this way money could be spent more effectively in tipping more and more people on the verge of vegetarianism or veganism in the right direction.