Emerging Profiles for Cultured Meat; Ethics through and as Design
As lab-grown, cultured or “in vitro” meat develops further into a viable product fit for human consumption, questions around how we view lab-grown meat and what kind of ethical niche we wish it to fulfill remain up for debate. The authors of this paper consider two dominant profiles in support of cultured meat, one from a standpoint of animal ethics and one from the perspective of environmental sustainability, and offer a third possibility, one that might include real animals as part of the process. In this “third profile,” researchers envision a kind of “backyard farming” scenario where farmed animals do not disappear from the process, but are instead kept in small numbers, donating stem cells for meat and also acting as companions.
The development of cultured meat (also known as “lab grown meat” or “in vitro meat”) has led to the emergence of interesting questions for researchers of nutrition, sustainability, and ethics, often all at once. In this study from The Netherlands, researchers mapped two general profiles of support for cultured meat, dividing them into two broad categories: a “vegetarian profile,” primarily concerned with the ethical implications of eating animals, and a “sustainable profile,” primarily concerned with the environmental implications of factory farming. In this broad categorization, researchers suggest that the future of cultured meat is still somewhat unwritten, and that “what [cultured meat] might become is still open in many respects.” Through focus group work conducted at conferences related to bioethics and emerging technology, researchers explored various other possibilities for how cultured meat might be envisioned.
Taking the two broad profiles above as a starting point the researchers put forward a third possibility, one that offers “a glimpse of a possible world in which we can have it all: meat, the end of animal suffering, the company of animals and simple technology close to our homes.” In this scenario, animals such as pigs and cows are kept in backyards both as human companions and as stem cell donors, not completely disappearing from sight as biotechnology simply takes their cells and produces meat from them. In this scenario, we maintain a link with farmed animals, though ostensibly a non-exploitative one, and researchers note that the goal of this scenario is not so much a “vegan world” or a “sustainable world,” but a “better / less alienated world.”
Though the conclusions offered by the paper are exploratory and speculative, researchers note that this is precisely the point. “When cultured meat one day will finally enter the market as a product, it may already have a rich history as an idea that has inspired new perspectives on old meat practices, new designs for protein practices and new views on who we are in relation to food, animals and our environments.”
The development of cultured meat has gained urgency through the increasing problems associated with meat, but what it might become is still open in many respects. In existing debates, two main moral profiles can be distinguished. Vegetarians and vegans who embrace cultured meat emphasize how it could contribute to the diminishment of animal suffering and exploitation, while in a more mainstream profile cultured meat helps to keep meat eating sustainable and affordable. In this paper we argue that these profiles do not exhaust the options and that (gut) feelings as well as imagination are needed to explore possible future options. On the basis of workshops, we present a third moral profile, “the pig in the backyard”. Here cultured meat is imagined as an element of a hybrid community of humans and animals that would allow for both the consumption of animal protein and meaningful relations with domestic (farm) animals. Experience in the workshops and elsewhere also illustrates that thinking about cultured meat inspires new thoughts on “normal” meat. In short, the idea of cultured meat opens up new search space in various ways. We suggest that ethics can take an active part in these searches, by fostering a process that integrates (gut) feelings, imagination and rational thought and that expands the range of our moral identities.