The Ethics of Lab Grown Meat: A New Vegan Option?

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

By Jody McCutcheon

There can be no doubt that factory farming is a scourge on human and environmental health, not to mention animal welfare, and a black mark on the moral ledger of mankind. Of course, the best way to avoid that is by going vegan. But another potential solution to the problem is lab-grown meat. Apparently, once the technology’s a bit more refined, we won’t be able to taste the difference between meat from a lab and meat off the bone. And it certainly won’t cost its current price of $18,000/lb.

No greenhouse gases, no animals killed. It seems like a win-win, right? Hmm….let’s look a little deeper.

The Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

Firstly, the technology for lab grown meat comes from rather dubious sources. The three companies leading the way – SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future – are based in what may well be the world’s least ethical nation: Israel. And the investors? Well let’s put it this way: one of the biggest investors in cloned meat is also the biggest pusher of GMO foods and one of the largest shareholders of Monsanto/Bayer stock – Bill Gates.

If you think GMO seeds are bad, how would you feel about transgenetic meat? This is already happening: animal organs are being genetically modified, ostensibly to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s, and other diseases in humans. But no one knows what the ultimate results of such experiments could be on human and environmental health. The same techniques could easily be used to cross species barriers by say, combining cow genes with fish genes to create lab grown meat with Omega oils- with completely unknown consequences.

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

Lab Grown vs Cloned

Whilst lab grown meat isn’t commercially available yet, cloned meat and milk has been available in some countries like the USA for years. Companies like ViaGen clone not only pets (creepy!) but actual cattle and pigs for agricultural purposes, meaning they still slaughter sentient animals for ‘cloned meat’ – but this livestock was not born in the usual, natural way.

Whilst the USA has approved cloned meat and milk for human consumption, the European Union is concerned that not enough data is available for a viable study on the safety of such products. They’ve also expressed ethical worries because cloned animals tend to suffer from more health problems at birth than conventionally bred animals, making cloning animals a serious animal rights issue.

In fact, around 95 percent of clones don’t survive gestation. Of those that do survive, many suffer and die from respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous, muscular, skeletal, and placental abnormalities during their first year of life, according to Friends of Animals.

Experts such as Andrew Weil, M.D., point to another concern: Safe or not, cloned meat and dairy products will come from factory farms that threaten the environment and make use of hormones and other additives, he argues, and adds that ‘it’s all part of an unhealthy trend in food production.’ Cloning, he says, increases the control of factory farms, decreases genetic diversity, and removes food production from the land, and puts it in the hands of scientists.

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat


Impossible Burgers Indeed

Similar arguments could be made for lab grown meat. Cultured meat uses technically sophisticated production methods, making it harder for communities to produce food self-sufficiently and potentially increasing dependence on global food corporations. And at the end of the day, it seems that is one of the key issues here.

But those who are switching to lab grown meat in the name of better health should take note: all of that engineered ‘meat’ that’s supposed to revolutionise the vegan food industry does contain potentially very unhealthy genetically engineered ingredients, including yeast and something called heme, which exists in soy roots and meat.

Impossible Foods, a pioneer in lab-grown meat and the home of the Impossible Burger, uses genetically modified ingredients including heme. In 2015, they asked the Food and Drug Administration to review the burger’s safety. The company was taken aback by what it received: a long letter saying that the data they’d submitted wasn’t sufficient to “establish the safety” of heme for human consumption.

What’s more, an article published in Food and Wine magazine warmed that “excessive” heme consumption had been linked to colon and prostate cancer. These negative results have already been noted – and that’s without widespread consumption of the stuff. As Impossible Burger fans grow, we suspect health problems will, too.

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

Morality…or Money?

Factory farming is largely a moral issue, yet this solution of lab-grown meat is pretty clearly rooted in technology and economics, not morality. And yet meat – be it cloned, conventional or lab-grown, is a highly moral issue.

If the rise of the sim-meat industry leads to fewer animals suffering, what’s the problem? The answer is more troubling than you may think. In switching to lab-grown meat for our own sake rather than for the sake of animal welfare, we’ve failed to make the appropriate moral adjustment, so to speak.

A moral evolution would acknowledge that we don’t need meat to survive. It would see rooftops and empty lots being used for urban agriculture; more veganism, and less food waste. It would acknowledge that we, the people, should have more control over what we eat – rather than being fully dependent on labs and corporations.

Our qualities of indifference, thoughtlessness, complacency and lack of curiosity, as well as our tendencies to silence or dismiss qualms and blindly follow what the media and corporations tell us is good for us, has in the past made us more vulnerable to manipulation from morally dubious leaders. Examining the ethics of lab grown meat is an opportunity for us to consider not only whether meat is truly essential to our lives – in whatever form – but also to which extent we want to trust corporations with what’s most essential to our lives: food. As for me, well – a black bean burger will do just fine.

Jody McCutcheon
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