Will Our Culture Embrace Cultured Meat?
‘Cultured’ or ‘clean’ meat is identical at the cellular level to conventional meat and is made from animal cells without needing to raise and slaughter animals. It is a concept that is becoming more tangible, with consumers expected to be able to buy the product within a few years. It has the potential to hugely reduce our GHG emissions land use and water use and reduce the suffering of millions of non-human animals if it replaces current meat production methods. The question of whether consumers will try this new product has been written about before, but this study delves more into how established institutions and cultures in our society will react.
The authors note from the outset that the media is going to play a crucial role in how clean meat is perceived by the public. So far, coverage of it in the U.S. and E.U. has been relatively neutral or positive, likely due to the fact it has been coming from pro-clean meat advocates such as the researchers themselves. The authors emphasize that those who are already familiar with the concept of cultured meat are unlikely to be swayed in their opinion by further information. Therefore, the early positivity around cultured meat is a good start in gaining future widespread acceptance.
However, there is opposition to cultured meat. Those against cultured meat are likely to use arguments highlighting the “unnaturalness” of the technology, underpinned by the idea that food should be natural, something that is deeply conditioned into most of society. Within animal advocacy groups, clean meat can also be controversial, because it is seen to potentially undermine the process of genuine social change. The authors note that if you want to promote clean meat, the best ways are through focusing on it’s similarity in taste and texture to conventional meat or its societal benefits (as described above) and to avoid talking about the “high tech” elements of the product.
From there, the authors describe how over half of the world’s population is religious, making religious people an important group to consider. Their study looked at each of the major religions in turn. 23 Jews, 193 Muslims, 730 Hindus and 139 buddhists were asked which cultured meat products they would be willing to eat. Their responses indicate that most religious consumers would be open to eating cultured meat, with some indicating they would still avoid the meat from animals not allowed in the religion (e.g., pigs in Islam and cows in Hinduism). A major takeaway from this section of the article is that a large proportion of religious people questioned said they do not follow the prescribed diet of their religion. Therefore, specific religious rulings on cultured meat are unlikely to impact the opinion of most people.
In terms of regulation, there are still major uncertainties that haven’t been addressed. One key question around the regulation of cultured meat is if it will be considered ‘meat’. In both the E.U. and U.S., the current definitions of meat make it seem as though cultured meat would be excluded. However, there is potential for the definitions to change to include cultured meat based on health and allergy concerns.
Naturally, cultured meat has many potential economic impacts. The main impacts discussed here are those on animal farmers, the potential for large corporations to make all the money, and the increasing inequality both between countries and individuals.
The authors note that even though only 4.4% of E.U. employment comes from agriculture, those employed are largely in rural areas where the jobs are dependent on agriculture. Cultured meat will create new jobs, but require a very different skill set when compared to current workers in meat production. Furthermore, there is potential for farmers to switch to producing crops for human consumption or biofuels — this could be a focus point for animal advocates to help farmers have a smoother transition.
The possibility that a few companies with large amounts of money would control the production of cultured meat is a big concern. Industry concentration could lead to a few organizations putting pressure on suppliers and limiting consumer choice. Also, cultured meat can realistically only be possible in countries with a highly educated workforce and reliable energy. This could make the economic inequalities between countries even worse.
Even though there are still huge unknowns in what the clean meat industry is going to look like, this research gives animal advocates a heads up as to how this new technology might interact with current cultural norms. More research into these systemic effects — and potential pushback — is warranted.