Recent advancements in bio-technologies, the growing popularity of vegan movements, and the reluctance of many meat-eaters to become vegans themselves are creating a need for a viable and mutually-satisfying solution. Lab-grown meat, otherwise known as 'in vitro meat' could be the answer.
For better and worse there is a confrontational underbelly between meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. This often manifests in private and public bouts of argument, violent/non-violent protests, and meal-time drama. In one corner, the issues raised often revolve around the ethical, economic, and health advantages of a meat-free lifestyle; in the other corner, the taste, ease of choice, and (again) health advantages are also raised. Given that there is something to be said of all of these issues and some progress has been made, nonetheless, the prospect of reconciliation between the two sides seems unlikely. However, there is another solution on the horizon that could potentially put a stop to this battle.
Enter in-vitro meat (IVM). As the food scientists Zuhaid and Hina Bhat explain, IVM is an organic complex bio-fabricated through tissue-engineering and culturing techniques which involve either none or very little direct use of animals, so it should please vegans. The material required for this process is gathered by a painless biopsy or cell-scraping from an animal, either living or in utero, which can then be grown independently. The outcome of this inventive process is a piece of actual meat that has caused zero harm to any animal (since the cultured meat is not itself sentient).
Although IVM may seem like something from the future, it has already been carried out and is very real. An initial attempt was made in 2002 by NASA scientists who grew muscle tissue from the common goldfish in Petri dishes in an attempt to provide meat for use in space. A more notable instance of IVM production occurred in 2013 when scientists created a 5oz IVM burger. The growth took three months, which may sound like a long time, but considering that traditional meat is harvested from animals that need years to grow and develop, it is actually relatively fast. The burger patty was worth more than $330,000, grown using stem cells harvested from a cow’s shoulder.
Now for the critique. At the outset objections crop up with IVM. Today IVM costs a significant amount of money and requires specialised equipment to create. However with enough public support the product will inevitably become cheaper to produce as the demand for it increases. With more funds, there will be more scientists willing to work in this area, more labs devoted to IVM production, and more marketing and advertising in its favour.
From an ethical stand point economic feasibility should not be at the forefront of people’s minds as, to put it crudely, the ethical benefits trump the economic costs. Traditionally farmed meat is only as cheap as it is because it is ‘mass produced’ in the truest sense of the term and all considerations bar economic ones are eschewed. The consequence of this is that animal welfare, environmental, and public health concerns are for all intents and purposes simply collateral damage; they are regarded as merely an economic ‘necessity’ for current meat production to continue. As in most cases concerning sentient beings, there are other costs and values that are important besides monetary ones.
Another worry is that any product for human ingestion that has been composed in a laboratory or with the word ‘bio-technology’ attached to it is a veritable hazard to public health. This is underscored by the idea that what is not ‘natural’ is not good. Although this is a familiar dud argument for some, it should be said that the way traditional meat production is carried out is not done on Old McDonald’s pastoral farmstead. There are plenty of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics artificially pumped and sown into and over our farm animals and crops. It is also worth pointing out that close contact with animals in traditional farming has been a major factor in outbreaks of food-borne diseases and pathogens such as foot and mouth, bird flu, and more recently ebola.
Luckily, IVM has none of these setbacks. IVM is grown in a controlled environment which means scientists have acute control over the development and quality of the meat, and may manipulate flavour, fatty acid composition, fat content and ratio of saturated to polyunsaturated fatty acids. So IVM would satisfy the aesthetic criteria often used as a reason against giving up eating meat and would be healthier at the same time. In effect, IVM is meat (in the conventional sense of the word) and would be identical in taste if not superior to traditional meat products – a safer, tastier, and healthier option.
IVM production on a large scale would bypass, or at least massively reduce, many direct and indirect consequences caused by contemporary meat production. The resources needed for mass meat-farming, such as water, feed, land, energy and animals will be no longer necessary as in theory “a single farm animal may be used to produce the world’s meat supply”. In fact, it is even possible that ten stem cells could divide and differentiate continually and yield 50,000 metric tons of meat over a period of only two months.
Another advantage could be the increased of types of meat available. IVM funding means we would be able to produce meat from rare and endangered animal cells, and perhaps we could sample extinct animals to produce truly exotic choices.
Moreover IVM could be an answer for world hunger problems once it is mass produced, since it requires less resources, energy, and land. This is especially important given the increasing impetus on ‘green’ solutions to global pollution. Since traditional meat production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it may be that in the future using IVM is an unavoidable option for people that want to continue eating meat as traditional large scale farming is ultimately unsustainable.
So, there are difficulties today facing IVM – yet these are not insurmountable. The benefits are there and they are profound. IVM would be in effect the same as turning everyone vegan without stopping them from eating meat. IVM could bridge the divide between meat-eaters and non-meat eaters today. No punches need be thrown, no protests held, no meal-times made awkward.