[Cultured meat] is meat grown in cell culture instead of inside animals.[i] This type of meat is a form of cellular agriculture using similar techniques employed in tissue engineering. Cultured meat involves removing muscle cells from the animals and applying specific proteins that promote tissue growth.[ii] Why it is needed? Because we have a dissonance among our values that needs to be solved. Cultured meat offers a scientifically innovative solution to the conflict between people’s freedom of dietary practices and the concern we have for animal lives.
It is a truism that food is a necessary component of biological life. We, and our cousins of all sorts, need it as a source of energy for our survival. But there are too many things we eat that are conscious creatures. If we care about them and this morally relevant feature of consciousness they possess, then there is reason to find a solution to this concern.
What motivates us to find this solution?
Different cultures around the world have novel dietary practices that challenge differing social ethics. Due to this, anthropologists have found out societies that consume things some other societies find bizarre and horrible. This includes consumption of animals. Animals are parts of our natural world and their existence is of as much value to the biodiversity as humanity’s is. Even if these species are not on the verge of extinction, every individual animal has its own freedom and survival that, from its interests, shouldn’t be violated.
Everyone accepts that there should be a line drawn somewhere, even in dietary practices. As Dostoyevsky reminds us, we can’t live life in permittance of absolute liberty. Social existence demands drawing boundaries and regulating behavior. On the subject of eating habits, the million dollar question is- where is this line and who gets to draw it? An obvious answer is that cultures or states should decide it themselves based upon the conditions they find themselves in. But that’s where the problem lies, as noted in the beginning. In case of states, multiculturalism in democratic countries today allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in governance hardly solves the problem; it leads to the same effects as cultural opinions would. The very fact that authorities attempt to objectively define the relativity of dietary acceptance gives reason to be skeptical about their morality.
On the other hand, this problem doesn’t just revolve around human lives. It is imperative to take into consideration the lives of millions of other species whose survival is affected by supposedly intelligent human choices. Who speaks for them? One obvious alternative is to completely stop eating (and further, using) all products that involve killing animals. But there’s a problem. Billions of people who earn their livelihood through the meat or fish industry face unemployment with a lack of possible recourse. They might eventually find other professions, or the governments that invest in the potential research for solutions might offer them employment opportunities. But this would nevertheless come with huge transitionary expenses even if such a policy was feasible. Spending a number of years rebuilding one’s life is neither prudent nor attractive. One can argue here that disallowing people to eat their preferred foods violate their basic freedoms. And there is some truth to this. But these very actions also violate basic freedoms of animals.
New Technologies, Better Solutions?
A possible solution: cultured meat. The most popular instance of a product resulting from cellular agriculture is Professor Mark Post's cultured beef burger which established evidence for cultured meat in 2013. One remembers the quote of Churchill, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” The conjectural likelihood of such a thing produced by industrial setting, as the Churchill quote shows, has been quite old. But the novel technology scientists hold today has allowed them to turn this incredible idea into reality.
Morality seems to have already given consent to the concept. Bioethicist Julian Savulescu says, “[Cultured] meat stops cruelty to animals, is better…We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research.” Cultured meat is an ethical solution; but decision making cannot be based upon moral concerns alone. It is important to assess how feasible such a move in practice can be.
Is it rational to invest in such a research?
In spite of its expensive production at an initial stage and the generic reaction of an incredulous stare, the idea of cultured meat has much to offer to the world today. Aside from the application of such an idea for ethical reasons, it can also reduce the environmental problems we have. As a replacement for animal agriculture currently taking place, cultured meat can lead to reduction of 99% of land use and 82-96% of water use that is presently utilized. Even the greenhouse gases emissions by introducing cultured meat can be decreased by 78-96% than conventional meat leads to.[iii] Even though the statistics are somewhat speculative, the probabilities seem to be enough motivation to take the idea seriously.
Apart from the environmental impacts, cultured meat can also contribute to human health. Since the pre-intake of meat stage would involve almost absolute manufacturing control, multiple changes can be done to the final product in terms of taste, smell, texture and nutritional composition. [iv] Commercially as well, cultured meat has potential paybacks. World Health Organization has found out that 30% of all cancers in Western countries and 20% in developing countries are due to dietary factors, especially meat consumption. A large part of the problem with convention meat is the conditions in which it is cultivated. It is effectively inconceivable to produce cultured meat outside a sterile, uncontaminated environment and thus, the product should pass the safety test. For all the health enthusiasts, this can be the non-vegetarian alternative they might have wanted. Presence of such consumers in the markets could potentially be beneficial for the producers economically as well as an incentive to the researchers (who will engage in innovative scientific projects that have such practical implications). Once cultured meat hits the markets, even if significantly costly, it will still prove a competition to conventional meat. This will mean that consumers will have more choices at their disposal, especially one with a higher nutritional and caloric density than many staple foods currently provide.[v]
In 2013 when Dr. Post came up with this cultured beef burger, the burger patty costed $325K. By 2015, it drastically reduced to $11.36 or $80 a kilo. It has been estimated that within the next few years, the product will be a price-competitive alternative. With more funding from public sector and the entry of private entrepreneurs in the markets, the competition shall eventually lead to better quality control at cheaper rates, ones which lower-income groups can easily afford. Dr. Post has mentioned that it would be possible to produce 10,000 kilos of meat from a small piece of muscle. Something impossible in conventional meat.
In spite of its tremendous benefits, there are some problems associated with cultured meat. The main problem is with the investment for such research if it has to be carried out on a large scale. The Dutch government has already invested four million US dollars into cultured meat research. But it is going to be extremely difficult to motivate governments and private individuals from across the globe for funding simply based upon ethical considerations. Dr. Post thinks that in countries like India, China and Russia where cost conscious middle-class population that primarily engages in meat consumption is growing, this might prove even more difficult. This is the reason to formulate the cultured meat defense not only in terms of moral scruples, but also show the possible consequential advantages that can be generated.
A particular issue with this research is that many people see it as something “unnatural”; even if the meat is real and grown in artificial (in vitro) conditions, many believe that the product itself is artificial. Ironically, the same people don’t seem to have trouble with babies created with in vitro fertilizations. The only problem here is with the mindset of these critics. Cultured meat is not only evidently natural as a product but also a progressive step in many respects. Dr. Post and others researchers are optimistic such fallacious attitudes can change over time.
Conclusion- because why not have our cake and eat it too?
It seems that if financial resources are invested and such a product is introduced, one potential way to save individuals currently engaged in animal industry from unemployment is the slow replacement of conventional meat products with cultured meat. Cultured meat solves the prima facie tension between freedom of dietary practices and animal rights (where it is possible to do justice to both values we mentioned in the beginning). But this ethically viable solution also has other effects that are sufficient to motivate us in their own right. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day. There will probably be more challenges emerging once we take this idea seriously and put it into application. But this has been the first step in answering hard questions. Now it is important to find out the right away to frame the answers.
[i] Wim Verbeke, Pierre Sans, Ellen J Van Loo, Challenges and prospects for consumer acceptance of cultured meat’ Journal of Integrative Agriculture, Volume 14, Issue 2, February 2015, Pages 285-294
[iii] Hanna L Tuomisto and M Joost Teixeira de Mattos. Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Environ. Sci. Technol., 45(14):6117–6123, 15 July 2011.
[iv] Willem Frederik Van Eelen, Willem Jan Van Kooten, and Wiete Westerhof. ‘Industrial scale production of meat from In-Vitro cell cultures’, 25 June 1999.
[v] Rorheim, A., Mannino, A., Baumann, T., and Caviola, L. (2016). Cultured Meat: An Ethical Alternative To Industrial Animal Farming. Policy paper by Sentience Politics (1): pp. 4
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