Last week researchers whisked back the curtain on a hot new invention in the food science world: lab-grown meat. The development of ‘schmeat‘ lights a fire under foodies in all camps — carnistic folk or those with animal industry ties argue it’ll never be as ‘good‘ as carcass-meat from actual beings; the public reception seems skeptical at best; some animal rights enthusiasts support it as a means to less killing; and some vegans stridently oppose the premise that more meat (however it’s made) could be the answer to any question worth asking. But complex problems rarely lend themselves to simple solutions: there’s more to the issue of lab-made meat than simplistic yes-or-no arguments can adequately address.
In a bizarre performance-art style tasting event, two volunteers sampled the newly-developed lab-grown hamburger at a London theater last Monday. Mark Prost, professor of physiology and biotechnology at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, leads the team that developed the ‘cultured beef’ using bovine stem cells. The version of lab-grown-burger presented to tasters last week cost a little over $330,000 to develop, and still needs work — future efforts may involve more ‘marbling’ in the lab, for a more fatty taste and realistic texture.
The Vegan Option podcast hosted a thorough discussion of the debate surrounding lab-cultured meat in 2012, if you want a better understanding of the research process.
The ‘schmeat’ patties still require killing, since they start with animal cells and then are cultured in fetal serum taken from slaughtered pregnant creatures. In theory, there could be similar methods utilized without animal cells; but that technology hasn’t yet been developed to any significant degree.
The race to take agriculture out of meat production has sparked some fascinating debate. It’s also symptomatic of a growing awareness, even within mainstream culture, that what we’re doing with food production at present is wildly unsustainable. Lab meat has some PR hurdles to leap: there’s definitely a public ‘ick’ factor related to lab meat that seems strange to me — most omnivores who express this disgust would vomit if they saw the production of traditional meat, in its bloody screaming tortured non-laboratory-based misery.
But I’m especially intrigued by the contentious debate among vegans and vegetarians about the issues surrounding lab-grown meat. PETA whole-heartedly supports the ongoing research, even offering a million-dollar prize for whoever can be the first to bring it to the marketplace. Other vegans and animal activists are outraged and disgusted, and argue vehemently against the idea that lab-grown meat can bring anything positive to the table. These articles offer summaries of each camp’s viewpoint:
- Why Lab-Grown Meat is the Future of Food (Ingrid Newkirk, President and Co-Founder of PETA)
- The Future of Food, Why Lab Grown Meat is Not the Solution (Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society)
Is Lab-Grown Meat a Worthwhile Technology?
That seems to me to be the vital question: not ‘Is it better than being vegan?’ Not ‘Would I eat it?’ — in its current animal-derived form, for the record, I would not! — and definitely not ‘Is it THE solution?’ But the question should be, ‘Can cultured meat offer something positive to the world?’
And to that question, I think the answer may be ‘Yes.’
Our meat-and-dairy-soaked food production system, in its current form, is an unmitigated disaster — it’s hard to imagine a world in which lab-grown meat production could be worse than what we’re doing now! If we let the perfect preclude the good, we lose valuable opportunities for progress. So even if lab-made animal products wouldn’t solve the crisis of diet-driven disease, less animal suffering while we work on the rest of it would represent a significant improvement!
Cultured meat wouldn’t replace lentils and chickpeas, for me, but for my neighbor who eats all his meals with meat at their center it might replace a thousand cows with a hundred, or with ten. Will I keep advocating the joy of cooking with lentils and chickpeas? Yes indeed I will! And maybe someday my neighbor and I will agree.
But until then, with lab- vs. animal-factory-sourced meat, there could be a lot less killing in the world — and while less isn’t better than none, it’s certainly better than more.
And while lab-grown meat wouldn’t be as sustainable as organic kale from my garden, I’m not convinced it would pollute more waterways than pig factories! I don’t need it to be better than the ideal world I see in my mind and will continue to strive for; I just need it to be better than what I see in the real world, as it is right now.
Vs. Either Schmeat or Meat, Veganism Still Sparkles
Lab-made meat takes nothing away from the strength of arguments in favor of vegan living — it just offers potentially reduced suffering while we engage in that advocacy. I don’t see this technology as competition with veganism at all — if anything, it’s mainstream scientific acknowledgment of some of our core points, lending itself to a slippery philosophical slope in our direction: animal agriculture is rife with cruelty, pollution, and unsustainability.
Complex problems rarely submit to simple solution strategies; let’s use every tool in the box, when it comes to reducing the amount of misery inflicted by humans on nonhuman animals! But all the reasons veganism trumps traditional animal agriculture in terms of health, environmentalism, and ethics still apply to discussions about lab-grown meat — we don’t need to fear lab meat as a philosophical competitor for omnivorous affections, since all the same problems remain.
If the technology progresses to a point where no slaughter is required, let’s revisit this conversation; but until that (still very much hypothetical) point, since violence is still a part of the picture, it’s as easy to argue against optional violence towards animals for production of lab-made meat as it is to argue against the violence intrinsic to traditional animal agriculture.
By all means, fellow vegans: let’s keep doing so!
But meanwhile, lab-grown meat could mean less violence in the background of that discussion. In considering all the arguments for and against the emerging technology of cultured meat, I’ve yet to see anything to sell me on the idea that less violence towards animals is a bad idea. So I’m pretty comfortable with our society saying, ‘So long factory farms — hello Frankenburgers!’