The ethics of laboratory grown meat


I was interested in this article and video clip of attempts to make meat in the laboratory. This technology has been talked about for some time and is advancing. They are already able to make chicken, beef, and pork. They do this by using stem cells to grow the protein in the labs. I have no idea how it compares with regular meat in terms of taste and texture. The video below explains the process by which it happens and the advantages.

This video is clearly produced by proponenst of this technology and argues that this a more environmentally friendly way of producing meat and fish protein than the usual ways. The cost of production is currently extremely high but the people behind the movement suggest that it will come down to comparable levels fairly soon.

Some issues are purely empirical, such as whether producing meat in the labs on a massive scale would indeed be less energy consuming or produce less greenhouse gases than animal farming. But others are more difficult to address, such as whether animal products created in the lab from animal cells are still animals and eating them as ethically prohibited.

I was curious as to whether lab grown meat would meet the ethical standards of vegetarians and vegans. On the one hand, it would avoid the killing of animals to meet the rising demand for meat. That might satisfy those vegetarians for whom the killing of animals and the suffering endured in the factory farming process is the main concern. But since animal stem cells are being used, I suspect that it may not meet the standards of all vegans for whom using food coaxed from animals in any way (such as eggs and milk) is still considered exploitative and unethical.

This video suggests that the touted benefits of lab grown meat are not as clear-cut as proponents suggest and that opinions are mixed within the vegan community and the subject of controversy.

Peter Singer, the well-known ethicist who is considered the founder of the modern animal rights movement, has of course looked into this issue and seems to think that lab grown meat is an acceptable alternative. For him the issue is minimizing suffering and since lab-grown tissues do not have a central nervous system that can experience pain, that removes the main ethical obstacle to meat.

Some vegetarians and vegans may object to in vitro meat, because they don’t see the need for meat at all. That’s fine for them, and of course they are free to remain vegetarians and vegans, and choose not to eat in vitro meat. My own view is that being a vegetarian or vegan is not an end in itself, but a means towards reducing both human and animal suffering, and leaving a habitable planet to future generations. I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years, but if in vitro meat becomes commercially available, I will be pleased to try it.

Since I am neither vegetarians nor vegan, I can only guess at the wide range of reactions among them. I would be curious to hear from those who are as to how they view this development.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    But since animal stem cells are being used, I suspect that it may not meet the standards of all vegans for whom using food coaxed from animals in any way (such as eggs and milk) is still considered exploitative and unethical.

    As I understand it, the more level-headed vegans object to eggs and milk because the chickens and cows are still housed in industrial farming conditions. I know at least one who “cheats” on eggs by purchasing eggs marked free-range and cruelty-free (I am not familiar with the practices to know whether those are fair descriptors). The other I know specifically adopted veganism for the suffering bit–I would assume he wouldn’t care about test tube meat.

    That said, vegetarianism and veganism do have a big big overlap with the woo crowd, so at least some of them would probably object because it’s, quote, “unnatural.”

    As for me, if it ever becomes commercially viable, I’ll switch to it.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    The cost of production is currently extremely high but the people behind the movement suggest that it will come down to comparable levels fairly soon.

    I cannot agree with their assessment. The impressive thing about cattle is the digestive system. It turns roughage that not even vegans would eat into wonderful, tasty meat. Growing the meat in the lab and throwing out the digestive system is a sure-fire failure economically. You can quote me on this.

  3. naturalcynic says

    There would still be objections to using yeast derived egg and milk due to them being GMO.
    As for meat, I can see the possibility of eventually using your own stem cells or your child’s fetal stem cells from the placenta as the source for meat production. Anyone who would want to do this would get a home-based fermentation [or whatever] appliance to grow your own. Welcome to the world of ethical cannibalism.

  4. Robert Munck says

    Welcome to the world of ethical cannibalism.

    Is it cannibalism if it’s from your own cells?

  5. Callinectes says

    While it doesn’t really solve the ethical issue, the equally important issue of sustainable feeding everyone on Earth can be helped along by seriously adopting insect tissue as a major protein source. It is by all accounts healthier than vertebrate flesh and more efficient to produce. I’m sure satisfactory burger patties could be rendered from locusts, and mealworms can already be ground into flour from which certain baked goods can be made.

    On a slightly more fanciful note, any long term commitments to Lunar and Martian habitation will, I am convinced, included insect livestock along with the hydroponics. They’re not bringing any cows along, that’s for sure. Perhaps mice will be viable mammalian alternatives for meat and milk?

  6. komarov says

    Re: Reginald Selkirk, #3:

    The impressive thing about cattle is the digestive system. It turns roughage that not even vegans would eat into wonderful, tasty meat. Growing the meat in the lab and throwing out the digestive system is a sure-fire failure economically. You can quote me on this.

    1.) Get rid of the cows and grow crops on the now empty pastures
    2.) Use the crops as feedstock for biofuel (-> energy) and for chemical production (-> raw materials for growing meat)
    3.) You now have completely different meat production chain with a unique set of technical, ethical and environmental challenges. Huzzah!
    4.) It’ll take decades before consumers can figure out whether this is better or worse.

    Actually, once the technical challenges have seen a bit of work, t I’m fairly sure the process could become efficient enough to compete with a cow. It has the advantage of not involving animals, so it should be easier to control and scale up. Bottlenecks are easier to address by adding another chemical reactor than by adding more cows. The reactor might turn out to be a huge tank filled with enzymes and bacteria cribbed straight from the bovine digestive system.
    It’s a pity, but I think (1) and (2) would be pretty much inevitable in this scenario. Grown meat should only need a few animals, so, wherever possible, the land would be turned over to crops. Most likely they’d be monocultures, which in terms of biodiversity (and environmental impact in general) are probably no better than grazing animals.

  7. militantagnostic says

    Callinects @7

    Perhaps mice will be viable mammalian alternatives for meat and milk?

    Small mammals would be very inefficient since they have much higher metabolic energy requirements per unit of mass than larger animals. Surface area varies as the square of linear dimensions while volume varies with the cube. Since small animals have a much higher ratio of surface area to volume, a much larger portion of the calories they consume goes to simply maintaining their body temperature.

  8. robert79 says

    Some vegans I know object to all use of animals for any purpose. This is more than just avoiding animal based food — wearing wool or leather, and even owning pets is taboo. Animal discomfort, or even having a central nervous system, no longer plays a role in their logic, since if everyone were to release their cats and hamsters, I imagine the hamsters would lead very short and horrible lives.
    I doubt these people will consider vat grown meat ethical, animals were used at some point in the production chain, if only to obtain the stem cells. Furthermore, since it is still an animal product, they will remain to view it… in some abstract sense… as the use of animals for our own personal gain.

    Personally, as a vegetarian (strictly speaking a pescetarian, as I do occasionally eat fish) I would not consider vat grown meat, as I don’t like the taste and structure of meat. It’s the same reason I don’t eat many popular meat substitutes (veggie burgers, quorn, etc…) as they try to replicate exactly the bits I don’t like and end up tasting even worse than the original. I’ll certainly give vat grown smoked salmon a try though!

    In the end I suspect there are as many types of vegetarians as there are vegetarians, and this will simply be a personal choice.

  9. robert79 says

    @10 This is counterbalanced by the time it would take to raise an animal to maturity, which is a lot faster for small animals than large animals. By your logic ostrich meat would be a lot cheaper than chicken.

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ 8 komarov

    wherever possible, the land would be turned over to crops

    Not all that possible in many cases. A lot of grazing land is not suitable for crops so we might see a lot of land returning to a more natural state.

    Otherwise your worry about monocultures is likely to be true. However, depending on the feed-stock source for the machines, a lot of land might be freed up since a very large amount of monoculture crops, corn in North America for example, goes to feeding animals.

    Assuming the new process does not off-gas climate changing gases a drastic reduction in the number of cows in the world would greatly reduce greenhouse gas production since cows are a very significant source of methane.

  11. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    The major barrier is not public perception but the basic issue of the growth medium in which the cells will multiply — the (presumably) liquid contents of the vat.

    The current experiments that have produced sample bites that have been fed to the press with much fanfare (see e.g. https://www.eater.com/2017/3/15/14933922/lab-grown-chicken-duck-memphis-meats) are produced in a medium that is basically serum extracted from animals. This is obviously not sustainable; they are using product extracted from many killed animals to grow a few animal cells!

    But the job of formulating a medium that uses non-animal ingredients to support rapid, continuous multiplication and growth of healthy animal cells has barely been addressed and will not be simple. This mix will be needed in great quantity but its constituents are simply not known. However, it is exactly the cost and the source of those ingredients that will determine the economics of the final product AND its ecological impact. Since at this point nobody knows what will be in this feed-stock, all predictions of economics and environmental impact are pure guesswork.

  12. says

    I’d have to ask why is eating plant material more ethical than eating vat meat. If you want to be ethical you should set yourself up to photosynthesize.

  13. anat says

    robertbaden, we do not have evidence that plants have a capacity for suffering in any meaningful definition of the word. Ability to process sensory input seems to be related to self-propelled motion. Mussels and oysters lose much of their brain as they become sessile in adulthood, so there is <a href="https://sentientist.org/2013/05/20/the-ethical-case-for-eating-oysters-and-mussels/"an ethical case for eating them. Also, the ecological impact of eating plants directly is usually less than that of eating animals whose food we need to grow (calculation is different regarding animals that graze on land which cannot be used for agriculture or wild fishing).

  14. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Prof. Singham, this new Slate article is an excellent exposition of the growth medium used (so far) for lab-grown meat: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/07/why_is_fetal_cow_blood_used_to_grow_fake_meat.html .

    It is Fetal Bovine Serum, and the article details how it is collected and its many uses in industry and medicine. All lab-grown meat has so far been produced using the blood serum of unborn calves, each ounce of product sampled by the press having consumed the extract of many animals. It seems clear to me that lab-grown meat cannot possibly succeed in the marketplace until the makers can honestly say they have formulated a growth medium synthesized entirely from plant products. But nobody has a clue how to do that.

  15. Mano Singham says

    Just an Organic Regular Expression @#19,

    Thanks so much for that very interesting article. It certainly clarifies the issues and suggests that, as you say, unless the producers can use a plant-based serum to grow the tissues, it hardly addresses all the issues of ethicality and sustainability.

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