As someone who's a vegetarian for largely ethical reasons, I'm intrigued by the prospect of scientists in a lab creating meat from real animal cells -- using the same basic mechanism as human stem-cell research -- that would be food from the start, bypassing the being-a-living-animal stage.
There seems to be a buzz around lab-created meat: there was an International In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway last month.* And predictably, PETA (an organization I have very mixed feelings about) is promoting the idea by offering a million dollars to the first scientist who brings the concept to fruition.
Unfortunately, the plan has some serious (I'm guessing fatal) flaws. For one thing, the progress has been miniscule (literally) and glacial:
Despite considerable hubbub over the technology in recent months, we're still years -- or, more likely, decades -- away from affordable lab-grown meat. The current experiments are taking place in bioreactors that measure only a few hundred milliliters in volume, and the longest complete muscle tissues are just 2 centimeters long. Researchers are nowhere close to scaling up their production to market-ready levels, to say nothing of market-ready prices. A Dutch team's lab-grown pork, for example, would cost around $45,000 per pound—assuming they could make an entire pound of the stuff.But what really disturbs me about the whole project is that
manufactured meat promises to replicate only the taste and texture of processed meat; as far as we are from enjoying lab-grown hamburger, we're even further from perfecting man-made rib-eyes. So even if meat labs did become viable commercial enterprises, the naturally raised meat industry would hardly vanish.As that passage implies, it's foolish to assume that either the production or the consumption of meat is static rather than dynamic, although this is often presupposed in arguments against vegetarianism ("They're just gonna die anyway").** This contradicts the plain facts and basic rules of economics.
Given our penchant for gluttony, affordable lab-grown meat could even be harmful to our health: We might simply increase our beef and pork consumption to keep pace with production, as has occurred over the past half-century. (According to this disturbing assessment, we annually consume 50 pounds more meat per-capita than Americans did in the 1950s.)
But there's one thing that specifically does not disturb me. William Saletan (a liberal who often writes about bioethical issues but is not a vegetarian) says that lab-made meat would be
a colossal concession ... for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat "would mimic flesh," says PETA's press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh. ... It won't walk or quack like a duck, so technically, it's not a duck. But if it tastes like duck, chews like duck, and comes from duck, it's duck.Well, I'm suspicious of arguments that hinge on a semantic distinction like "duck" vs. "a duck." It seems to me that if something is one of those, it's both. If we're attributing momentous moral significance to a little thing like the word "a," that should set off alarm bells: is that really what matters? I don't think so.
People have this impulse to turn moral debates into semantic debates. "What counts as torture?" "What counts as human life?" "When is someone dead?" "Is lab meat made of animals?"
I don't care about any of those questions! When it comes to ethical issues, these are the only things I care about: (1) What exactly is going on? (2) Is it a good thing or bad thing for that to be happening?
I don't care if waterboarding or slapping someone in the face is called "torture." It either will or won't be called torture depending on how any given person chooses to use that word. The important question is: Is that behavior something that we should be engaging in? Skip the semantics and go straight to the ethics.
Yes, language can be essential to thought, but language can also box in thought. (I'm inclined to agree with the thought-precedes-language side of the debate outlined at that link.)
If you want to say that lab meat is made of animals just as normal meat is, then fine. That just means there's no semantic distinction. But what makes normal meat morally problematic doesn't exist in lab meat. A piece of lab meat doesn't have a history as a living, breathing, moving, and -- above all -- sentient creature with feelings. Normal meat does.
Lab meat does raise ethical issues, but they're pragmatic ones like whether the environmental consequences would outweigh the potential for adding more fuel to our meat addiction. I see no fundamental (non-pragmatic) moral problem raised by lab meat.
Again, I doubt the whole thing will work at all. But if producing lab meat from animal cells worked perfectly -- which would have to mean it would be satisfying enough to meat-eaters that they'd reduce the rest of their meat consumption -- then wouldn't it be not just OK, but morally obligatory?
(Photo by Emily Chastain)
* I once had a debate with one of my fellow law review editors about whether you can ever have a capitalized proper noun after an indefinite article ("a" or "an"). Voila! [back]
** I'm planning a series of posts responding to common arguments against vegetarianism like this one. Stay tuned. If you happen to have a favorite anti-vegetarian argument, please send it my way, and I might include it in one of the upcoming posts. [back]