Cultured meat

Some of the arguments against eating meat are that it is morally wrong to kill animals, that the factory farming practices that it leads to create conditions for the animals that are repugnant and ethically indefensible, and that growing animals for meat is a waste of resources and is economically wasteful and environmentally damaging, since it takes a lot of land and plant products to produce animals for meat. And yet people seem to have a taste for meat.

Karen Dawn writes about the development of what is called ‘cultured meat’ that start as cells taken from an animal that may be able to satisfy people’s desire for meat without most of the negative consequences.

Whether obtained from a feather, swab, or small biopsy, the cells are added to a medium, which is basically cell food, in specialized vats known as bioreactors, where they begin to replicate. In the early research, that medium was animal-based, which gave some animal advocates pause, but things have progressed. JUST’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Josh Tetrick, tells me in a phone interview, “Herbivorous animals use plants as their media to produce meat, and so can we.”

The replicating cells are put on scaffolding where they grow into the final product. It looks and tastes like meat—because that’s what it is.

She discusses a video produced by the company that shows some of the people behind this sitting down to a picnic meal of chicken while the actual chicken from whose discarded feather that meat was grown (his name is Ian) wandered around nearby.

Does this new process of meat production solve the moral, ethical, economic, and environmental problems associated with normal meat production? While those issues will be debated by philosophers and ethicists, some benefits are immediately apparent. Factory farming will no longer be necessary since all you need are a few cells to start the process. But you are still eating meat with cells taken from animals, even if you are not actually killing them. And you are still using plant-based products to produce meat and thus introducing waste in the plant-to-meat conversion process, although the loss factor is greatly reduced since you are not producing the bones and skin and all the other parts of the animal that are not used.


  1. says

    Certainly if your goal is addressing those questions it holds promise. Of course, right now it is so expensive and requires so many resources to produce so little food that economic and environmental concerns are actually increased in the short run, and those economic and environmental concerns are the source of some of the ethical/moral concerns. Since it does address the concerns about suffering I won’t say that the ethical/moral concerns are increased right now, but I think that they’re shifted dramatically and at first glance seem neither diminished nor increased at the moment.

    But that products early in the research & development phases require dramatically increased resources for the amount produced is a known problem. So long as we’re not so invested in eating meat that we can’t make reasonable and rational decisions about whether the technology is appropriately progressing towards an efficient process (and thus about whether further research on a particular version of this tech deserves to continue), then sure. Continue it. I just don’t want people to think that this is the (or even “an”) answer until we’re a lot farther along in determining what it will or won’t cost to make this work, how many people it will feed, and whether it requires unsustainable resource tradeoffs.

  2. sqlrob says

    It’s been a long time since I’ve grown any cells in culture, but have they gotten away from needing Fetal Calf Serum? FCS would really negate a lot of this.

  3. robert79 says

    I know some very strict vegans who are against the (ab)use or keeping of animals, however kindly, for our own gain or pleasure. Owning a cat or dog is taboo for them. Making use of the discarded feather of a chicken is for them probably also a bridge too far.

    I, on the other hand, am mostly a vegetarian because I dislike the taste of meat and attempts to veggie-replicate the taste of meat usually taste even worse to me. Everything else is a welcome additional benefit.

    But aside from the above two cases, I suspect “fake” meat like this would be a welcome alternative for a lot of people, assuming it can be produced cost-effectively.

  4. Bruce says

    In terms of ethics, I would volunteer to have a biopsy sample taken surgically of my own flesh, and have those cells be cloned to feed myself and everyone in the world who wanted it, if it were as economical as other foods. I don’t care if it’s marketed as Soylent Green, the “other white meat”, or “Bruce meat”, or just as meat. I wouldn’t consider anyone who ate it to be a cannibal or a non-vegan, if it were made from 99.99+% veggie broth stock, etc.
    I get that some would find it creepy, but I don’t.

  5. Bruce says

    Related, I wonder how many nines of purity, e.g. 99.99+%, are needed for different sorts of vegetarians to feel ok with meat grown from plants with a pattern starter bit of protein? I get that some would insist on 100% out of principle.
    But to me, the purity tests should stop by the number of nines that fits the protein level of a bean soup into which one flea has unknowably flown. Vegans have never been able to avoid this, even while wearing masks to minimize inhaling gnats. So if breathing is ok, I think cloning from donated cells in veggie broth should be equally ok.

  6. invivoMark says

    Something that cows and chickens have, which cell culture currently does NOT have, is an immune system. The whole reason that multicellular organisms are eukaryotic and bacteria are unicellular is a matter of energy. Eukaryotic cells can be a whole lot more energy efficient with large and complex genomes that program an organism-level development plan than bacteria can.

    By culturing eukaryotic cells, you’re taking away that metabolic advantage they have, and growing them in a field that prokaryotes have evolved for billions of years to dominate. That’s why cell cultures get infected and overgrown, and why we have to grow them inside sterile plastic containers and in laminar flow hoods.

    I doubt that large-scale cultured meat could be economically feasible while keeping the whole thing sterile, so I think the only options we have are figuring out how to give eukaryotic cell cultures an artificial immune system, or figure out how to get bacteria to taste like beef. I honestly think the latter is the smarter approach.

  7. invivoMark says

    Correction to 6: “The whole reason that multicellular organisms are multicellular eukaryotic …”

    [I corrected it for you-Mano]

  8. John Morales says

    If it really works, inevitably we will see human meat for sale.
    Because humans are perverse like that.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I’m vegetarian partly for environmental reasons, and partly because my wife is, but largely because I formulated this proposition: “It is unethical to deliberately cause suffering when refraining from doing so can be accomplished with negligible effort.” I mean, you can never cause ZERO suffering — plant diets also remove habitat and cause deaths to animals, so does living in a house, driving down the road kills bugs, etc. Pure Jainism doesn’t work. But with the meat substitutes and protein sources already available, a vegetarian diet carries very few (mainly social) drawbacks, so I found myself unable to justify NOT adopting one.

    Put it this way: suppose this technology advances to the point that the fake meat can’t be distinguished from the real article in a taste test, and costs the same as well. What ethical justification then exists for still preferring the one that causes suffering? Wouldn’t you need to be some kind of sadist to prefer it?

  10. flex says

    @brucegee1962, #9,

    What ethical justification then exists for still preferring the one that causes suffering?

    I think you underestimate a human’s ability to self-deceive. There will be people who will claim to be able to taste the difference even if the substances are chemically and structurally identical.

    Look at audiophiles who honestly believe that they can tell the difference between 14 and 16 gauge wire used on digital speakers. Telling them that digital speakers use bits, not analog levels, doesn’t seem to phase them at all. They know that the signal is digital, and know what digital means, but still insist they can hear a difference in the sound between two speaker wires.

    Or look at wine aficionados who will assign different flavor profiles to the same wine, with and without tasteless food coloring added to adjust the color.

    I’m certain that livestock will be around for a long time, and will probably become even more a sign of conspicuous consumption. When most chicken meat is vat grown, meat from a once-living chicken will be a status symbol and people will claim it tastes better. The best we can hope for is that most factory farms will shut down.

  11. suttkus says

    So… if we replace the meat industry with lab grown meats… what do we do with all the cows and chickens? : -- )

  12. John Morales says

    xohjoh2n, I have no idea, since “that” is so very vague.

    (Or: depends to “what” refers)

  13. consciousness razor says

    Crip Dyke:

    I took it to be a clever pun

    But unlike the case of the two equivalent speaker wires (assuming they’re equally well-shielded from EM interference and whatnot), people do experience psychoacoustic phenomena related to phases.
    I realize this response may be a little baffling. But I mean some people did used to argue it was basically irrelevant, given some misunderstandings about Ohm’s law in acoustics (not sure if that included Ohm himself or Helmholtz later on). So, I don’t know if you’re under that mistaken impression, but I will dispel it anyway. Maybe it will be mildly interesting….
    There are different kinds of phase shifts and such used in a variety of common audio effects, which of course we can hear (or not, as the case may be). This includes noise-cancellation, reverb, as well as things that you’d probably think of as changes of timbre and/or distortion. It’s also how you perceive the spatial origins of a sound, how you “localize” it, since the sound reaches your ears at different times (since they’re in different places). And there are more exotic examples like binaural beats (two frequencies making you hear an illusory third frequency) and other ways of combining low-frequency signals to affect the pitch you think you hear (not its timbre, loudness, location, what its environment is like, or anything else). And I suppose you could say, using the term somewhat loosely, that very large differences are basically just “rhythms.” At any rate, none of that is irrelevant in music, speech perception and the like.

  14. flex says

    While I’d like to take credit for the pun, it was unintentional. Apt; but unintentional.

    I was thinking about how both electrical and acoustic wave phase shifts, as consciousness razor references, can impact listening to audio. But any phase offsets in digital signals are too small to be detectable (in the nano-second range), and are swamped by phase differences in the acoustic environment after the sound has been generated by the speakers. So I may have been primed to use the wrong word, but it wasn’t intentional.

  15. anat says

    So… if we replace the meat industry with lab grown meats… what do we do with all the cows and chickens? : — )

    I notice the smiley, but for those who are still wondering about this question seriously, the answer is that farmers reduce the breeding as demand drops.

  16. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    I was following developments in this nascent field of Cellular Agriculture for a couple of years through 2018, altho not recently. There are a number of startups trying to produce edible beef, pork, chicken and various seafoods, using cells grown in some medium. There are also companies trying to grow leather from cells, and silk from basic chemicals, bypassing the silkworm. The Cellular Agriculture Society is the nonprofit promotion wing.

    @sqlrob, you are exactly right that as of 2018, the elephant in every lab was the use of Fetal Bovine Serum as a growth medium. The aim of every company was to formulate a non-animal growth medium that could be made economically at scale, and any step toward one was an important piece of secret intellectual property.

    In my experience, Josh Tetrick, quoted in the article, is a self-promoter given to making, let us say, highly optimistic forecasts of progress.

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