The Ethics Of Lab Grown Meat: A New Option?

They say these could save the planet. But are the ethics of lab grown meat really all that great? We investigate

By Jody McCutcheon

There can be no doubt that factory farming is a scourge on human and environmental health. Not to mention on animal welfare. It’s also black mark on the moral ledger of mankind.

Of course, the best way to avoid this scourge 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.

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:

Yep, I’m talking about Bill Gates.

Unasked questions on the ethics of lab grown meat

If you think GMO seeds are bad, how would you feel about transgenic meats? 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.

Furthermore, synthetic meats often contain genetically modified yeast cells whose long term health effects are unknown. And there are currently NO LAWS that state food that has been bioengineered needs to mention this on the label. For example, on their packages, Beyond Meat says it doesn’t contain GMOs. Which is true. But they also don’t say all of their products are vegan. Why? Nor do they always state that their products are bioengineered, which they are. Sneaky. No wonder their shares have tanked.

The ethical questions no one seems to be asking are:

  • what are the long term health consequences of eating transgenic meat?
  • what are the health and environmental consequences of genetically manipulating animals, plants and yeast cultures?
  • should humans be playing with genetic code when we don’t know the results of doing so?
  • how vegan is lab grown meat, if at all?

Manufacturing meat in vitro

Another way to create bioengineered meat is to make meat in vitro. The science behind this is fairly simple.

The process starts with a few ‘satellite’ cells, which are taken from the muscles of a live animal. These are stem cells that can turn into the different cells found in muscle. When fed a nutrient-rich serum, the cells turn into muscle cells and proliferate, doubling in number roughly every few days.

After the cells have multiplied, they are encouraged to form strips, much like how muscle cells form fibres in living tissue. These fibres are attached to a sponge-like scaffold that floods the fibres with nutrients and mechanically stretches them, ‘exercising’ the muscle cells to increase their size and protein content. The resulting tissue can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked and consumed as boneless processed meat.

But guess what? Since it originally comes from a live animal, this meat can’t be considered vegan.

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

Cruel cloning

Cloned meat (and milk) is yet another bioengineered meat option. Companies like ViaGen clone not only pets (creepy!) but actual cattle and pigs for agricultural purposes. This means they still slaughter sentient animals for ‘cloned meat’. The only difference is that this livestock was not born in the usual, natural way. So…how is that more ethical in any way at all?

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. That’s 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 even 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.

A shift in power

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 states. He adds that ‘it’s all part of an unhealthy trend in artificial food production.’

Cloning, he says, increases the control of factory farms by large corporations, decreases genetic diversity, and removes food production from farmers, and instead puts it in the hands of scientists.

Similar arguments could be made for lab grown meat. Cultured meat uses technically sophisticated production methods. This makes it harder for traditional farming communities to produce food self-sufficiently. It also potentially increases dependence for our food supply on global food corporations. And at the end of the day, it seems that is one of the key issues here.

Ethics of Lab Grown Meat

The impact of lab grown meat on human health

Some people are switching to lab grown meat in the name of better health. But those folks should take note: all of that engineered ‘meat’ contains 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. The fact remains that meat – be it cloned, conventional or lab-grown, is a highly moral issue.

For example, with the use of cell cultures, we could create all kinds of meats, from panda burgers to human steaks. And the idea here is, ‘hey, no animals (or humans) were hurt in the process, so what’s the problem?’

Well, the answers are 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 that much meat – or perhaps any 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. We should be encouraged to grow our own fruits and vegetables, rather than being fully dependent on high-tech labs and huge corporations for our food supply.

Creating immoral demand

Furthermore, who’s to say that panda burger for sure came from a lab? As with the permitted sale of antique ivory, this just creates a larger market for the product. As poachers know well, if people are going to pay top dollar for old ivory, surely they’ll also pay top dollar for new, even if it’s unethical. That’s why most governments around the world have banned the sale of ivory, full stop. And that’s why we should never allow for abominations like panda or human burgers to ever be sold, full stop.

The main point here is this: lab grown meat isn’t about ending animal suffering. It isn’t about improving our health. It is about controlling where our food comes from.

In conclusion

Our human 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. The pandemic has made this more than clear.

Examining the ethics of lab grown meat is an opportunity. It’s a chance for us to consider not only whether meat is truly essential to our lives – in whatever form. But it also forces us to ask ourselves to which extent we want to trust corporations with what’s most essential to our lives: food.

The average person has nothing in common with mega-landowners and investors like Bill Gates or the geneticists creating lab grown meat. But we all know this: food creation should not be concentrated in the hands of a few technocrats. The “billionaires know best” mentality is rooted in colonialism and fascism, and ignores those who actually know best how to use and live with the land. And while proponents of bioengineered meat insist it’s kinder to animals, its very notion is still deeply rooted in speciesism.

It’s time we reconnected to the earth and reconsidered our relationships with animals, instead of further distancing ourselves from nature with bioengineered food.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of lab grown meat? We’d love to hear from you in the comments, below!

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