“Carniculture” And The Future Of In Vitro Meat
Readers of this blog will already know that I have a thing for lab meat. I have written in the past that successful production and commercialization of in vitro animal flesh would reduce animal suffering by an estimated 98%, without ever having to convince anyone about “animal rights.” Simply taking animals out of the equation does nothing to help progress human morality, of course, but it would profoundly help those animals who are raised and slaughtered for food. For animal advocates, it should be an obvious choice to support in vitro meat.
A recent article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics addresses the topic of in vitro meat in some depth and provides responses to the primary arguments against it. The article is titled “Vegetarian Meat: Could Technology Save Animals and Satisfy Meat Eaters?” (links directly to PDF file) by Patrick Hopkins and Austin Dacey. Their discussion of in vitro meat also has relevance to meat consumption in general and may be interesting to anyone who advocates for farm animals and/or vegetarianism and veganism. The authors begin by discussing the problem as they see it.
The problem then is basically that many people do not want to contribute to animal suffering and yet still very much want to eat meat. They can easily do this with the support of the conceptual and visual disconnect between their meat-eating and animal suffering. Is there any way around this? Beside the obvious answers of more guilt or more education—which would still require meat-eaters to give up something they very much enjoy—is there anything that would help? Ideally, what would work best would be something that allowed people to eat meat without contributing to animal suffering or animal death. More humane practices in slaughtering animals might help somewhat, but this will hardly satisfy those who believe that animals have the right not to be killed in the first place. Better yet would be something that allowed people to eat real meat without killing animals at all.
I believe – and the authors of this article would seem to agree – that the solutions to these fundamental questions can be found in lab-grown meat. And in vitro meat is not only a means of significantly reducing animal suffering, it is also a means of protecting the environment and improving human health.
Technologies ranging from the actual to the speculative promise a variety of ways to create real meat without killing animals. On top of this, add the promise that genetic engineering could produce cells that have a variety of new qualities that would make meat even healthier and tastier—higher protein, lower fat, high omega 3 acid levels or other healthful concoctions. Though still commercially infeasible at the moment or in some cases technologically infeasible for several years to come, the point here is not to be distracted by the fact that we cannot yet make use of these technologies but rather to decide whether we should support the development of these technologies.
Most of the article is focused on addressing challenges to in vitro meat consumption, some of which are suspect while others require serious deliberation. The one that stands out to me is the fact that some animal advocates will resist in vitro meat because it doesn’t reduce animal suffering “for the right reasons.” At the risk of being anthropocentric, I think I can hear the farm animals guffawing in their tiny cages. They probably don’t care very much about the moral purity of human beings; rather, I think that farm animals would welcome being replaced by non-sentient lumps of lab meat. Moreover, there is a strong likelihood that human morality toward animals will develop more quickly if we stop thinking of them as food.
In arguing for cultural change, we do not limit our moral options to conventional cultural mores, so why limit our moral options to conventional biology? And why not think that a solution mediated by technology is just as good for some purposes as a solution mediated by difficult moral argumentation? Perhaps for the purpose of cleansing our souls it is not, but such virtue-related ideals are not our only considerations. If technology can accomplish the goal of reducing animal suffering even by appealing to our selfishness, then at least animal suffering is reduced. It may also take a few years of living with something like cultured meat to help change our mores so that people in the future find eating meat from living animals unbearably barbaric.
Hopkins and Dacey conclude their article by stating that people “may be morally required to support” the development of in vitro meat. I would take it one step further. If we truly care about the suffering of animals, then we must find ways to support the development of lab meat. The global human population is currently 6.7 billion and it increases by about 85 million people per year. Can animal advocates convince that many people to stop eating animals solely by appealing to their morals? And if we can, how long will such a change take? Can we as advocates accept the overwhelming amount of suffering that will certainly occur during that time? I hope not, because farm animals are counting on us, and in vitro meat is their best hope.
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