Meat in a vat?

This piece from NPR has generated some interest in the topic of in-vitro meat–that is, meat grown in a lab from a cell culture. Apparently there is a real possibility that sometime in the next decade or so we could see lab-grown meat on our supermarket shelves. On its face, this seems like a win-win for animals and for the environment given the well canvassed evils of industrial meat farming. That is, assuming the resulting product is safe for human consumption.

Undoubtedly the idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish will not sit well with a lot of people, at least initially. Similar to concerns about genetically modified crops, they may consider lab-grown meat “unnatural.” But in the case of GMOs there are legitimate concerns about cross-pollination or other forms of environmental harm that wouldn’t seem to apply here. This likely wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but the way most meat is currently produced isn’t exactly natural either, unless you consider being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics meat’s natural state. Maybe in the in-vitro future, “real” meat will become a niche or luxury item affordable only by the very rich. Or maybe eating real meat will come to be seen as grotesquely immoral given the widespread availability of ethically sound alternatives!

From a vegetarian/animal liberation perspective I can imagine that in vitro meat might seem like admitting defeat or a concession to “carnivore culture” (or “carnism” as some people refer to it): instead of convincing people to give up eating animals through moral persuasion, we’re enabling their flesh-eating ways. But assuming the rationale for animal liberation is reducing or ending the suffering and exploitation of animals, rather than just an objection to meat-eating per se (and what would the rationale for that be?), it’s hard to see this as much more than an emotional response.

I could be persuaded otherwise, and I likely wouldn’t eat “vat-meat” myself, but I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with this apart from the initial “ick” factor.

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6 thoughts on “Meat in a vat?

  1. Would it be OK to eat human flesh grown in vitro? The point of asking is to suggest that if a vegetarianism based on animal dignity and rights grows, then eating meat generated in any manner whatsoever may carry an ick factor similar to cannibalism. What do you think?

  2. I haven’t looked too deeply into the cannibalism taboo, but I don’t see how it can be tied to our modern conception of rights, since it’s much older and more widespread than that. In fact it’s tough to come up with a purely rational argument in favor of it; we already use dead bodies to support the living in medicine, so why not eat them? My WAG is that this is because it falls under the larger crime of desecrating the dead, which is a distinctly human concept to which animals seem oblivious. So I don’t think that not being cruel to animals automatically means being grossed out by eating them, unless you get there by anthropomorphizing overmuch.

  3. In a way, vat meat is what they were eating on Star Trek TNG ((artificially created real meat) :)

    I fear that trying to get everyone to just not eat any meat, even vat meat, will be close to impossible in the near future, so vat meat seems to me like a good alternative to help end animal suffering, though I wouldn’t want to eat even vat meat myself. I don’t doubt there will be some people who will only want to eat meat from a killed animal – maybe for some, eating meat is not just about tasty bites but about being a ‘predator’?

  4. I’m inclined to agree with Camassia that what makes cannibalism wrong–at least in the normal run of things–has to do with the idea of showing proper respect from the dead. (That is, assuming we’re talking about forms of cannibalism that don’t involve killing the person first–In which case we have more serious issues!) So in vitro human “meat” wouldn’t seem to fall afoul of that–though I’d guess that the psychological associations would be enough to deter most people.

    As far as (non-human) animals go, it seems possible at least in principle that we might come to accord moral respect to animals in such a way that there would be an analogous disrespect involved in eating their bodies. For instance, most people wouldn’t dream of eating the remains of a beloved family pet, which suggests that when animals are brought into the circle of human community and moral concern that some of the same moral scruples might apply. Were that to happen on a widespread basis with respect to all animals–utopian as that sounds–I could see it generating a similar aversion to non-human vat meat.

  5. True, I wouldn’t eat my cats, but then they might not have been as friendly with me if they weren’t neutered, and I wouldn’t do that to a human! But seriously, I think the feelings we have about pets aren’t really a model for how we should feel about the animal kingdom in general. Most animals are never going to be that cuddly.

    At risk of dragging the thread off topic, I don’t think the taboo on desecrating bodies is entirely about respect for the inhabitants of those bodies. Generally speaking, premodern cultures have a load of superstitions around death and corpses, and the bad things that can happen if you mess with them. That’s probably why the cannibalism taboo usually extends to the bodies of enemies. In fact, some societies I’ve read about practice cannibalism only among family — in funeral rites — because it constitutes a kind of mystical communion. (Infer what you will about the resemblance to Christian communion.)

    I don’t know what all this means for eating animals, but it does make me wonder. Have any of the many sources you’ve read on animal ethics approached the question in the context of cannibalism and/or mystical eating in general? Because the assumption that eating is strictly about material gratification may actually be part of the problem.

  6. On some level, many of the relevant themes have been explored in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and the HBO series True Blood which is based upon them, where vampires no longer need to feed on humans because a synthetic blood has been developed.

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