Is clean meat ethical? Is it even vegan? The Savage investigates.
You’ve seen the headlines. MIRACLE BURGER MADE FROM COW STEM CELLS WOWS SCIENTISTS (Daily Mirror), or LAB MEAT REVOLUTION BEGINS NOW (New Scientist) and SLUTBAG MEGHAN SHAMES US ALL (Daily Express). Everyone is talking about the slaughter-free meat that may be the biggest single game changer in the history of animal welfare and climate crisis. Inevitably referred to as Frankenfood by nerds, lab grown meat has the potential to revolutionise or even eradicate livestock meat production. That’s good – right?
Pump your brakes, Poindexter. Just because something seems like a reasonable idea on first inspection does not make it necessarily so. Remember that time we allowed the middle classes to breed? That worked out well. The point is that big developments like these inevitably bring with them a slew of practical and ethical concerns not easily dismissed, concerns not easily distilled into a simple list of pros and cons. Fortunately for you, The Savage has something for that ass: a simple list of pros and cons. Jesus Christ, you’re lucky to have him.
Helping to counter the antibiotic resistance crisis
Much like in HBO’s real-life dragon documentary Game of Thrones where a crew of sibling-banging psychopaths fight amongst themselves for decades, ignoring that there is a gigantic frozen zombie army coming to kill them all, the biggest threats are often the ones you don’t see. Bacteria may be invisible and no one will tell their children war stories about it but it is the biggest killer in history. Ever since Alexander Fleming‘s fortuitous discovery of penicillin in 1928, germs have been on the retreat but decades of antibiotic overuse have led to the global antibiotic resistance crisis. Nowhere is this a bigger issue than in the meat industry with the research showing that antibiotics given to animals drive antibiotic resistance and the emergence of superbugs.1 Clean meat, however, is produced in a sterile environment with absolutely no need for antibiotics. With the United Nations describing antibiotic resistance as “the biggest threat to modern medicine” the life-saving potential of clean meat is obvious and indisputable.
This one’s a no-brainer though apparently it still needs to be said. The Savage could list the sundry crimes of the throat cutting, chick crushing, calf torturing, ostrich gutting, pig castrating, sheep bludgeoning, dolphin killing, dog skinning, pheasant shooting, quail drowning, lobster boiling, salmon dispatching, whale skewering, duck slaughtering, meat industry and the blank cognitive dissonance in the nice people who support it but he is eager not to send a barge full of coals to Newcastle. Suffice to say that you can’t imprison, torture and kill in vitro cultivated animal cells and we can happily declare this A Good Thing.
Improving the environment
One of the great promises of veganism is how it confronts the climate crisis. Given that we know that turning vegan has the biggest single positive impact on the environment that an individual can make,2 it has always given people the feeling that their actions make a real difference. And yet the large-scale changes needed to slow down, halt or even reverse ecological catastrophe still seem a long way off.
If the rumours are true though and lab grown meat could be in our supermarkets in just a few years (Mosa Meat are estimating 4-5 years.) it could accelerate the process spectacularly. An antibiotic-free, ethical alternative to the filth-strewn depravity of factory farming could revolutionise livestock agriculture irreversibly. A 2011 study3 estimated that cultured meat would produce less greenhouse gas emissions (by 78-96%), water use (82-96%) and energy use (7-45%). Those kind of numbers are game changers and practically scream for wholesale adoption of the technology.
The hunger games
Hunger has never left us and while it is true that famine is killing fewer people than it used to,4 the wider facts make for some pretty grisly reading. Protein-energy malnutrition is on the rise5 and with the world population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, it seems certain to rise further. The technology of cultured meat can be transferred to poorer nations, drought-hit areas or anywhere where the crops have failed. The cells don’t need grain to grow. The Third Horseman can eat a dick. The United Nations have a Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. How much easier would that be after the cultured meat revolution?
Space! How low can you go? It turns out the answer is: significantly lower. The environmental metric land footprint isn’t as widely known as its glamorous cousin carbon footprint but it is still hella important. It measures the amount of land needed to produce a particular product and just as with debt, semiconductors and dress size, smaller is better. On this, lab grown meat beats the ever-loving bejaysus out of animal meat. An American Chemical Society report estimates the process will use 99% less land than traditional agricultural methods making its superiority in this regard as big a no-brainer as any lackwit anti-GMO vegan shitposting their drivel on Facecrook.
Meat, but better
Something easy to forget when concentrating on the various ugly footprints agricultural production leave behind is the potential for cultured meat to produce a superior product. It would be very simple to supplement clean meat with vitamins and minerals that are not naturally present in regular meat. The public health benefits6 from this preventative medicine could be extensive and there are plenty of indications that consumers want healthier options and are willing to pay for them. The lesson? Be the change you want to see in the world and then put ketchup on it.
They still use animals
No one would seriously claim that clean meat is a killing field for brere cow and the rest but it isn’t yet an animal-free process. There was egg powder flavouring the million-dollar Mosa Meats burger and the foetal serum and stem cells necessary to grow the tissue obviously can’t be acquired without intrusive procedures on animals. It is by no means a dealbreaker and should not provoke a rage-fuelled chimp out but it is what it is.
Best possible taste?
Ignore this one at your peril. The cultured beef burger could be a biological marvel lauded from Essos to Westeros but if it tastes like shit pie with liver, punters will vote with their tastebuds, quite possibly by feasting raw on the next roadkill they find. You have to remember that bloodmouths like their meat bloody with blood red wine and squealing vegetables and that the Piers Morgans of this world would rather drink their own piss than take a bite of a vegan sausage roll. The original beefburger effort tasted a little on the dry side by all accounts and even the creators of the world’s first cultured beef steak said the taste needed some work. The low-fat content means that it’s not meat as most carnivores know it which, like it or not, is a keystone issue. The taste test will be one of the most important tipping points clean meat faces and they are not there yet.
It doesn’t actually improve the environment
Remember all that eco-friendly stuff from earlier? Well, it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that. Dr Marco Springmann of Oxford University’s Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food says, “The latest reviews have put the emissions of lab-grown meat at several times that of chicken and far above any plant-based alternative, in particular due to the large energy inputs needed during production”.7 Maybe that will change as the production process becomes more efficient and streamlined but in the words of Winston Wolf “let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet.”
Jobs will be lost
It is naïve to think that there won’t be a jobs issue created by cultured meat. The US meat sector employs 1.87 million Americans and if the clean meat insurgency does come to pass, a large portion of those workers are going to find that their particular skillsets of animal torture and murder are no longer required. We can but pray that they don’t find themselves jobless like The Waltons, stuck on the farm with a clinically depressed John Boy self-harming on the porch as Mary Ellen jams anonymous ranch hand cock into her mouth for a few quarters a time in the hope that State Troopers don’t evict them. That would be terrible.
New technology is a funny thing. In the early years, there is inevitably a Wild West period where nobody exactly knows what the parameters are. Conventional food has the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the FDA and FSIS in America. Who enforces safety standards and best practices in the production of clean meat? Even though encouraging strides are being made in the US8 the laws simply aren’t there yet. It is one of the many hurdles the bloodless revolution will need to clear.
So, is clean meat ethical?
In short, yes. Is it an ethically perfect, magic bullet cure-all, breaker of chains, Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Andals and the First Men? No, but it’s still pretty damn impressive when most people’s idea of climate activism is to stop using plastic straws, stop shaving for a week or leave their recycling out. Cultured meat technology is a triumph of science over woo with potentially huge implications, most of them positive. Take the victories where you can my friends. This could be a big one.
And if you think this is some vogon pipedream, check out the conservative neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute report9 on the issue. “Animal husbandry, which has for millennia been the way in which meat was produced, now faces a viable alternative in the form of manufactured “lab-grown” meat. The new method will be cleaner, healthier, cheaper, and beneficial to the planet’s environment. It will eliminate practices that involve the mistreatment of animals. It will halt the contribution made by current farming methods to the spread of antibiotic resistance. It will create a new, multi-billion-dollar industry.” You can only ignore the jawdropping numbers for so long. The indisputable ethical case is buttressed by the practical one. Soon, it will be irresistible.
- Antibiotic use in farm animals threatens human health – NICS Well
- Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers – Science magazine
- Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production – Environmental Science & Technology
- Why do far fewer people die in famines today? – Our World in Data
- 2018 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics – World Hunger Education Service
- Clean Meat: Exploring The Pros And Cons – Faunalytics
- World’s first lab-grown steak revealed – but the taste needs work – The Guardian
- The lab-grown meat industry just got the regulatory oversight it’s been begging for – Vox
- Don’t have a cow man: The prospects for lab grown meat – Adam Smith Institute