Broadcaster: BBC TWO
Review by Ella Yabsley
This 4.5-minute clip from BBC Two’s Food & Drink could serve as a useful discussion-starter when considering the ethics of global meat consumption. The clip begins with the introduction of a new type of food source, cultured beef or in vitro meat (IVM). A team from Maastricht University (Holland) claim that IVM was produced for numerous reasons: IVM is more sustainable compared to traditional animal farming practices; it could solve the current (and future) food crisis; and it could also help to combat climate change. Regardless of your ethical standpoint, this clip highlights some of the ethical, economic and health-related tensions that the ‘Western World’ is facing with regards to animal agriculture.
The clip itself has scant scientific information concerning the laboratory methods used to create IVM. The promotional website for cultured beef has an FAQ section which provides a short description of how IVM is made. Production involves scaffolds which support and encourage proliferation of embryonic myoblasts (muscle cells). Alternatively, a collagen mesh can be used as a scaffold for adult skeletal muscles in a suspension of culture medium. This article by Datar and Betti (summary free, subscription for full paper) provides a more thorough review of large-scale IVM production.
The idea of growing meat has been postulated for about a century. In 1912 Alexis Carrel reported conditions he said had allowed maintenance of an ‘immortal’ chicken tissue culture (we now know that differentiated cell lines are not immortal, but have a limited number of divisions, the Hayflick limit). Russell Ross was the first biologist to successfully culture muscle fibres in 1971 (from guinea pig cheeks); his original research paper is available to read here.
In our current society, many people are ambivalent (subscription required) about meat consumption. Positive feelings about meat-consumption may be influenced by friends, family, taste or health; whereas negative feelings may be influenced by health, morality of animal slaughter, animal welfare, social influences, economic and environmental reasoning. The presenter of Food & Drink notes that the future is likely to increase demand for food: “as huge developing countries get richer; they want to eat this [meat] too”.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates a 73% rise in global meat consumption by 2050 with a 53% rise in dairy consumption. Currently, humans consume over 150 billion animals per year for food, a point emphasised by this ticker-counter. The increase in farm animals required to satisfy this demand will subsequently increase emissions released into the atmosphere, along with a plethora of other consequences.
This, in principle, is where IVM comes in. Cultured beef, grown in the laboratory has the potential to favourably influence the environmental, welfare, economic pressure and human health issues associated with traditionally farmed meat. IVM production, it is argued, will use less resources (both water and plant-based animal foods such as grain or soybeans); produce less greenhouse gas emissions; lessen animal suffering (by decreasing the meat demand) and decrease spoiling of land and water supplies.
Conversely, some opponents, e.g. Miller, see proposals for IVM as reinforcing an outmoded model of animal husbandry which encourages an instrumentalist and exploitative approach towards other species. IVM reinforces a broader meat-eating agenda rather than actually addressing the issue of animal liberation. Paralleling the term ‘agriculture’ for traditional farming methods, Hopkins and Dacey have coined the term ‘carniculture’ for the production of synthetic meat.
In the clip, one of the chefs stated that the use of IVM is ‘unnatural’. Naturalness is a notion frequently batted about in discussion of novel developments in biology and medicine (e.g. see this press release) . As background for a current Nuffield Bioethics report on ‘Naturalness’, Anna Smajdor developed arguments on ‘Naturalness and unnaturalness in contemporary bioethics‘. Let’s examine these in relation to IVM.
To describe something as ‘bad because it’s unnatural’ requires clarification of the word ‘natural’. The word ‘natural’ could mean either: a collective of everything that exists, or, all things that exist independent of human intervention. If the word ‘natural’ describes everything that exists, then IVM is ‘natural’ (since it exists). Conversely, if the word ‘natural’ describes all things that exist independently of human intervention; IVM must be ‘unnatural’ (since it is caused by human intervention). Therefore in this sense, if IVM is ‘unnatural’ then by the same principle light bulbs, cars, mobile phones, insulin injections, cancer therapies must ALL be ‘unnatural’. Thus the ‘natural’ argument is not useful for normative purposes, despite the fact it is so frequently cited in the media. Singer and Wells state, “There is no appropriate sense of unnatural in which respirators for premature babies are natural but ectogenesis is unnatural“.
Ethically, IVM is morally attractive when compared with slaughtered meat. However, scientists have yet to create a truly marketable IVM product; slaughtered meat currently wins arguments in terms of attractiveness for taste, texture and nutritional value. Hopkins and Dacey observe that IVM creates a new physical reality which parallels the already self-deceptive and self-serving condition which many consumers place themselves in when buying meat. An individual may dissociate the material they are buying from the disembodied animal flesh it actually is. IVM provides a real-rather-than-imagined dissociation by creating real meat that is not an animal part (although we must not forget that IVM requires the use of animal samples in the first place). Fuller discussion of their arguments is beyond the scope of this article; for fuller discussion please see Hopkins and Dacey.
In summary, IVM provides a way of producing meat with fewer moral problems that traditional meat. IVM has the potential to provide nutritional (and even pleasurable qualities) desired by meat eaters. It would help to alleviate animal suffering and might contribute to overcoming food shortages in developing countries. For more on the potential impacts of dietary change on health and climate change in the next thirty years, please see Springmann et al (2016).
Papers and books
Dilworth, T. and McGregor, A. (2015) Moral steaks? Ethical discourses of in vitro meat in academia and Australia. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28:85-107
Hopkins, P.D. and Dacey, A. (2008) Vegetarian meat: Could technology save animals and satisfy meat eaters? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 21:579-596
Van der Weele, C. (2014) In Vitro Meat In Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics (pp. 1219-1225). Springer Netherlands
Collins N. (2011) Ethics of creating meat in a laboratory Daily Telegraph
Gould H. (2014) Would you eat lab grown meat to save the environment? – poll Guardian
Langois A. (2012) Lab-Grown Meat – An Ethical Revolution? Huffington Post
The Meat Revolution – A lecture given by Mark Post from Maastricht University (one of the Professors behind IVM meat)
Cultured beef for food- Security and the Environment – A lecture by Mark Post at TEDxMaastricht
Forks over Knives – A documentary outlining some of the major findings from The China Study (above). Many diseases like prostate cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease can be prevented and reversed by adopting a plant-based diet. Additionally the documentary contains detailed explanations of biochemistry experiments with rats. There is evidence to show that alternating plant and animal proteins in the diet of rats can switch cancer genes off and on respectively.
New Harvest – A non-profit organisation funding research into utilising biotechnologies to replace animal products