What’s Wrong With In Vitro Meat?

Posted in: Other Commentary

Dutch scientists recently presented the first “In Vitro” hamburgers for sampling before an audience in London.  The scientists had created the burgers from meat grown from a laboratory culture.  Many animal activists rejoiced at the news, hoping that perhaps people could soon successfully move from consuming the remains of slaughtered animals and their reproductive secretions, to consuming test-tube-cultured animal products instead.  I am not, however, as pleased and optimistic as some of my fellow vegans are, about the development of In Vitro meat.  In this column, I will explain why.

Animals Still Die for Cultured Meat

I imagined, when first hearing about cultured meat, that one needed only a cell or two from a living animal and that—like a “starter” for sourdough bread—cells from the animal could then divide and reproduce and thereby generate meat in perpetuity.  That is, I thought that after initially taking some cells from a living animal, one would not need to return for more animal cells later.  As it turns out, I was mistaken.

Contrary to popular belief, cultured meat involves the use and slaughter of animals.  The material used to make the hamburgers served in London involved a type of cell removed from cows’ necks at a slaughterhouse and cultured in a medium of fetal calf serum taken from a slaughtered, pregnant cow.  The kind of cell that scientists have used to create cultured meat has important practical advantages but cannot reproduce indefinitely, so it would reportedly “never be completely animal-free; . . . [the inventor] will always need a supply of muscle tissue from which to obtain new cells.”  If this is so, then “cultured meat” does not offer the promise of an end to animal slaughter and exploitation.

At most, cultured meat offers the possibility that people might pay for the slaughter of many fewer cows than before.  Slaughtering fewer animals is an improvement over slaughtering more animals, but it is still slaughtering animals.  I therefore have a difficult time seeing the product of that slaughter as an unambiguously positive development, even on its own terms, and I certainly would not consider the product ethical or “cruelty-free.”

Animal Foods Are Unnecessary for Humans

A somewhat different reason for my discomfort with cultured meat is a tacit premise of its development:  that people’s current choice to consume animal products must be taken at face value as everlasting and inevitable.

Consider a related scientific project.  In addition to working on cultured meat, (other) scientists have been developing laboratory-grown organs for human transplant, so that people with failing organs would not need to rely primarily on sudden tragedies befalling others to accommodate their organ needs.  But cultured meat differs from cultured human organs.  It makes perfect sense to try to grow a human kidney, heart, or lungs in a laboratory, because people really do need to have a kidney, a heart, and lungs to survive.  We therefore also need to have a source for these organs when ours fail.

People who die prematurely in car crashes and other tragedies do provide one source of replacement organs, but not all such people choose to donate their organs, and many patients in need of a transplant die waiting for a tragedy to befall a healthy and generous person.  Cultured organs, in contrast, would not require anyone to die, and could even be tailored to better match the tissue of the patient receiving the transplant.  Culturing organs thus fills a true need that humans have, and therefore represents a more or less unambiguous good.

The consumption of animal products, by contrast, is unnecessary for human survival.  Indeed, accumulating evidence points to the affirmative harm that such consumption causes in people.  To spend time and money attempting to develop cultured meat is therefore to pursue an unnecessary goal that is premised on an unexamined commitment of humans to the consumption of animal products.  That unexamined commitment is itself destructive, for reasons that go beyond—and will therefore persist along with—the consumption of In Vitro meat.

Why is the commitment to consuming animal products destructive?  First, it foolishly ignores the current availability of a cornucopia of natural, healthful, non-animal-based foods that people regularly eat and that nourish them without inflicting suffering and death on nonhuman animals.  One can literally live on vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, yams, carrots, spinach, cabbage, and broccoli; fruits, such as apples, grapes, pears, bananas, peaches, plums, cherries, oranges, raspberries, blackberries, and melons; legumes, such as lentils, black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, green beans, black-eyed peas, white beans, and yellow split-peas; grains, such as pasta, rice, wheat, oats, and barley; and nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds.  Mushrooms too—members of the “fungi” kingdom—add a healthful and delicious component to an animal-free diet.  And if one enjoys decadent food, one can achieve desired textures, creaminess, and flavor with an all-vegan menu as well.

Unlike with the development of cultured human organs for transplantation, in other words, we are not currently lacking for things that people can eat (and thoroughly enjoy eating) when they decide to stop consuming animal products.  When we dedicate scarce resources to finding something that we already have in abundance, we are wasting those resources.  Instead of using human ingenuity to culture meat, we could be distributing delicious vegan food samples to people who might otherwise believe, as at least two people in my circle of acquaintances have claimed just in the last month, “I don’t think I have ever eaten anything vegan.”  (Ever had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bag of potato chips?)

In addition to wasting resources by seeking what we already have—an alternative to consuming the flesh and secretions of animals—the “cultured meat” endeavor is destructive for a second, albeit related reason.  By honoring the false proposition that it is important for people to be able to eat cows (“beef”), we implicitly encourage everyone to think that it is also important for people to be able to eat chickens (“chicken”), ducks (“duck”), fishes (“fish”), birds’ ovulatory secretions (“eggs”), cows’ and other mammals’ mammary secretions (“milk”), or whatever their favorite animal corpse or secretion might be.  Once we take seriously the notion that people must eat their preferred animal-based cuisine, there is no end to the science projects to be pursued to satisfy each and every one of the particular tastes that people have, through often-unreflective (and virtually always unnecessary) habits and practices.

It is hard to imagine that anyone who is too committed to consuming hamburgers to stop, notwithstanding the resulting animal suffering and slaughter, environmental devastation, and food scarcity, will be satisfied with just one type of “In Vitro” animal product.  The problem, then, is the commitment to animal-based consumption, and it may be difficult to solve that problem by treating the commitment itself—a socially contingent set of human habits—as sacred and untouchable.

The “Yuck” Factor

A number of commentators have suggested that meat-eaters will likely resist cultured meat, because of the “yuck factor” attached to its unnatural origins.  Little, to be sure, is natural about breeding sentient beings to have bodies that maximize their “food” potential, thereby imposing painful and sickening conditions on them even before the first knife or branding iron is brought to their sensitive, un-anaesthetized skin.  For one illustration of this evolution in reverse, consider the fact that “egg-laying” hens have been bred to lay about fifteen times as many eggs per year as their closely-related wild ancestors do, thus yielding painful conditions, such as uterine prolapse and osteoporosis, that result from the hens’ essentially being in labor every day, and from their relinquishing stores of calcium to eggshells in the process, when that calcium rightly belongs in the animals’ bones.

Another example of such “survival of the sickest” evolution is domesticated turkeys, who are bred to be too large to be able to mate at all (other than through forced artificial insemination).  And if you think about it, how natural is it for humans to drink another species’ lactational fluid at all, let alone into our adulthood?

Yet people have gotten used to consuming these foods, and to doing so in quantities that in prior eras were limited to royalty (whose remains have the atherosclerosis to prove it.) And people have come to think of what they happen to do now as natural and normal.

Change can be frightening.  But consuming cultured meat would also represent a change, and the change, here, is to eating something that is in some sense completely new.  While most non-vegans have on occasion eaten an apple, a handful of peanuts, or a plate of rice and beans, just about no one has ever eaten a hamburger that was cultured in a laboratory.  A cultured hamburger may be biologically identical to a fully-slaughterhouse-sourced hamburger (minus the fecal bacteria found in most meat), but the manner in which people think about laboratory-grown food may nonetheless stand in the way of appetite.

Eating a dinner of salad with Italian dressing, pine-nut cream-based mushroom soup, cashew-based cheese lasagna, and apple pie is likely to be less threatening to most people than a laboratory meat sandwich.  Even if cultured meat did not in fact come from slaughtered animals; even if cultured versions could be developed for every animal product under the sun; and even if finding a “substitute” for animal products were not utterly unnecessary, the laboratory version could itself face serious obstacles to acceptance among people who are wedded to doing things the way they always have.

Conceiving of Animals as a Food Source

As a vegan, I acknowledge that I find the idea of a cultured animal product unappetizing.  Indeed, I find it unappetizing for the same reason that I find a slaughterhouse version of the animal product unappetizing.  I no longer regard nonhuman animals as food (or clothing or beauty product) sources, but instead think of them as fellow sentient beings, experiencing their lives on this planet and entitled to be free of our violence.  My disgust response, in this case, is thus very closely connected to my moral development in coming to realize that animals are beings whose lives matter to them (a fact that was obviously true before I discovered it, but to which I had been willfully oblivious, earlier in my life, in the case of farmed animals).

My friend and former colleague, Professor Gary Francione, commenting on the In Vitro meat debate, said it very well when he asked rhetorically whether we would want to eat a human arm if we could do so without hurting any human?  Of course we would not, because we do not view humans as food.  In fact, this may help explain why so many people find disgusting the prospect of mistakenly consuming bottled “breast milk” (i.e., human lactational fluid).  As adults, we do not think of humans as food sources, and we may accordingly find the notion of human-milk-based ice cream or cheese revolting (even if someone assures us that the flavor is wonderful).

Scientists could, in the future perhaps, develop some way of culturing an animal product without actually hurting an animal.  Nonetheless, our continuing to think of our fellow animals as food sources is likely to yield our continuing to exploit our fellow animals.  If you learned that a handbag or briefcase was made out of human skin—even the skin of a human who had died naturally—you would probably prefer to avoid using that handbag or briefcase.  The same is almost certainly true for, say, a chess set made out of human teeth.  Though you would not be eating these items (and the disgust factor might therefore be diminished), it would feel immoral and disrespectful to be using human remains in this way.  Showing respect for dead humans, in other words, is an emotional extension of the respect we show to living humans as beings whose lives matter in themselves, independent of their utility to others.  Trying to recreate bio-identical animal parts and secretions in a laboratory for humans to eat thus contributes to the same sort of moral risk as would eliminating the stigma attached to consuming human arms, skin, and teeth would.  It is a way of “culturing” disrespect.

Mixed Feelings

Having expressed my reservations about cultured meat, I nonetheless recognize some (limited) positive features in it.  First, the fact that someone wants to create it is, to my mind, a positive sign.  It suggests that there are people who currently consume the products of animal suffering and slaughter, but who have a desire to stop doing so.  This impulse is positive and gives me hope, even as I suspect that the existence and use of cultured meat itself will not change very much, if people continue to think of consuming animal products as a legitimate, morally innocuous enterprise.  I thus regard In Vitro meat as potentially standing as some evidence of positive ethical movement within people’s consciences, though I do not think the cultured meat itself will further facilitate that movement.

For another, independent reason, I also see In Vitro meat as a potentially positive development.  At the moment, people who provide housing and sanctuary to domesticated and feral carnivores  (for instance, cats) confront a moral dilemma:  they wish to save nonhuman animals who, for various reasons, are unable to live without human assistance, but these particular animals may require other animals’ flesh for nourishment.  In such cases, people of conscience who care about animals have no unambiguously good choices: They either abandon the carnivores to starvation or they contribute to the torture and slaughter of other animals.  If there were a way to culture large quantities of animal flesh without harming any living animals, then we could feed sheltered carnivores with a clean conscience.  Victoria Moran raised this possibility in a discussion of In Vitro meat on her Main Street Vegan radio show.

Notwithstanding these caveats, however, I remain ill at ease about the development of cultured meat products, an enterprise aimed primarily at human consumers.  As I describe in my new book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, our food and our lives can be nutritious, delicious, decadent, and joyous without anyone having to endure the pain, misery, and slaughter that farmed animals all endure because people consume animal products.  What we need, to spare animals, is not a laboratory so much as a willingness to consider what we mean when we say, as most of us do say, that we would never wish to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on an animal.

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