Cultured meat used to be science fiction, but it is rapidly becoming reality: In 2013, the first lab-grown hamburger was produced, costing $250,000. By 2021, Mosa Meat hopes to commercialise cultured meat. Manufacturers claim cultured meat could slash agricultural emissions while meeting rising global food demand. But, is manipulating life this way a step too far?
It’s a sizzling topic online, even the subject of a Buzzfeed video.
It’s a meaty issue: should cultured meat become the norm? Let’s sink our teeth into this.
Making Ends Meat
To demonstrate the advantages, a utilitarian argument can be applied to slaughter-free meat. This is applicable in that slaughter-free or ‘cultured’ meat benefits the most people when compared to traditional farming methods, because the process of growing beef in a laboratory is much more efficient than raising animals. Therefore many more people can be fed using the same land and energy resources, and crops currently used as animal feed could be used for humans instead. Access to food is a basic human right, and adopting this approach to producing meat could help to reduce world hunger.
A major benefit of slaughter-free meat is that it removes many of the issues related to factory farming. From a deontological point of view, a system that harms animals and causes climate change, that can negatively impact our society, is not an ethically sound idea. Therefore, through Kantism, the fact that slaughter-free meat can alleviate these issues makes it a much more ethically viable option.
Another issue with current farming methods is the use of antibiotics in animals bred for slaughter which leads to antibiotic resistance and water pollution. As well as removing this health concern, cultured meat can also lower the risk of disease. Traditional meat sources have multiple food-borne micro-organisms that can cause severe harm to human health. Beef and chicken have been deemed the most high-risk offenders for food poisoning, and are also large contributors to global warming.
Numerous companies, including some of the biggest US meat providers, have made great strides in lab-grown beef. This method of producing meat could also be deemed more ethical through both a virtue ethics and consequentialist lens. As the intention behind pursuing this technology is to provide a more responsible alternative to meat farming, it can be deemed a virtuous pursuit. The consequences of cultured meat include; producing a healthy meat product, reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising cattle , increased health benefits and decreasing deforestation and water pollution. Animals raised for food produce 130 times more waste water than the entire human populationcombined.
It’s clear that with current farming methods the meat industry is not sustainable. A sustainable food source is particularly important with a growing population. The traditional opposition to this has been a plant based diet. However, cultured meat presents a far more feasible alternative as the vast majority of people do not identify as vegetarian. Therefore, integrating slaughter-free meat into our diets is much more viable than moving society to plant based diets. This slaughter-free approach removes many of the issues associated with the meat industry without changing the diets of the population and can therefore be seen as beneficial for society as a whole.
What’s the beef with cultured meat?
One in three workers worldwide are employed in agriculture. Cultured meat could supersede traditional meat and put agricultural jobs at risk. The utilitarian view says this is an acceptable side effect. Kant counters this: humanity should be treated as an end, not a mean so risking agricultural jobs is immoral, despite a positive intention.
Recent evidence links consumption of red meat to chronic diseases, including a 19% higher risk of advanced prostate cancer and a 15% increase in cardiovascular mortality. The development of synthetic meat could encourage greater consumption of meat, especially among people who reduce meat consumption for ethical or environmental reasons. Proliferation of products harmful to consumer health is a breach of the responsibility of food manufacturers to its consumers, suggested by care ethics.
By considering the virtue of cultured meat consumption, Dr Carlo Alvaro argues that the consumption of cultured meat is contrary to temperance. Plant based food is abundant, delicious, healthy and natural so why neglect this option? The desire to consume meat comes from an animalistic appetite for its taste, but a temperate individual would instead consider the health benefits of a plant-based diet and avoid indulging in meat.
In 2013, there were 500 million smallholder farmers who often farm for subsistence and only sell small amounts to their local communities. The technical resources required for cultured meat means it could not be produced self sufficiently and could make communities depend on large corporations for food. Will they always act benevolently? Even if they do, there will be reduced moral autonomy as the ethical decisions behind food production are transferred to corporations.
Many religious groups could oppose cultured meat because of their values. Islamic jurists have not decided whether meat grown from embryonic stem cells or samples from live specimens would be halal. In Hinduism, it is normal to abstain from consuming meat because they do not share the Western principle of the man’s dominion over animals. Even if the animal is not slaughtered, many Hindus believe that humans do not have the right to use cells that are not their own. Kantian ethics states that nothing should be done if it can’t be universalized. If cultured meat cannot be considered halal then it cannot be universalised. For many major world religions the issue is not just with the consumption of lab grown meat but with the development of the technology itself. These religions, including Islam, Hinduism and Christianity have a core principle that people should not intervene with nature or “play god”. Using stem cells or embryos is often a controversial subject within these cultures.
Food for thought
Despite the concerns we believe that lab grown meat is an ethical solution to growing problems in the meat industry.