Artificial meat – the best idea you’ve heard all year!
Last week scientists from Oxford and Amsterdam announced the results of an investigation into the environmental impact of growing meat artificially in labs rather than keeping livestock. They found that greenhouse gases would be reduced by up to 96%. In addition, cultured meat production would only require 1% of the land and 4% of the water that conventional meat does. They estimated that if more resources were put into the research, it would take about five years to produce artificial meat with the consistency of mincemeat, and another five years to produce steaks. Their conclusion is modest: “We are not saying that we could, or would necessarily want to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart right now.” This modesty is misplaced – it should be considered not just desirable, but hugely important to replace conventional with artificial meat.
Think about the amazing feat under discussion. We’re not just talking about a substitute for meat – a slightly improved kind of Quorn. What they are producing is real meat, with the taste, texture and nutritional value of meat. And they are producing it in a way which cuts emissions of harmful gases by 96%! Climate change is a major threat facing the world today. Increases in the release of carbon dioxide and methane are leading to the planet heating up, which in turn will cause (potentially is already causing) floods in some areas, droughts in others, and also extreme forms of weather such as hurricanes. Meat production, particularly beef, is one of the major contributors to emissions. Replacing traditional meat with artificial meat would therefore make a huge difference to total emissions.
The other benefits of artificial meat are also significant. Beef cattle need large amounts of land for grazing, leading to deforestation to provide land for them. Lab-grown meat uses just 1% of the land which animals require. Rising food prices are currently a big problem for much of the world. Part of the problem is that meat is an inefficient source of energy – much more grain is required to feed enough animals to keep people well-fed, than would be required if people ate the grain itself. This pushes up the price of grain. Growing meat in a lab reduces the energy used by between 7 and 45%.
Last, but by no means least, is the plight of animals. To push down the price of meat, animals in factory farms are severely mistreated. If we’re not willing to pay enough for meat to allow animals to live adequate lives, and we’re not willing to give up eating meat, surely we ought to take seriously the possibility of replacing factory farmed animals with meat which can’t suffer.
What are the arguments against producing meal artificially? One argument is based on people’s reaction to the thought of where the meat came from. If people were repulsed by cultured meat, eating artificial meat would be less beneficial than eating conventional meat, since it produced less pleasure. Theoretically it might even be harmful, if people felt obliged to eat meat, but were repulsed by what was going into their body.
However, while it seems quite plausible that people would initially feel such meat to be rather grisly, the evidence seems to show that people are adept at ignoring where their food came from. Almost everyone has a rough idea of where their meat currently comes from, and that there is suffering involved, but we usually manage not think about that when we actually eat meat. This indicates that if we felt repulsed by the way artificial meat was produced, that would not necessarily stand in the way of our enjoyment of eating it.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that people would continue to feel that cultured meat is more grisly than factory farmed meat when they were used to it. Surely the idea that what is on your plate was once alive and was deliberately subjected to harm and then killed, is much less savoury than the idea that it was grown in a vat, whether in a lab or a factory.
A second reason for being hesitant about cultured meat is the possibility of its being physically harmful to people. In the past we have sometimes rushed into eating new substances, and it has back-fired. There is strong reason to think that this won’t be the case with cultured meat, since what is being produced is not a substitute for meat, but the very substance which we eat all the time. That is not to say that we should not apply rigorous tests to make sure what’s being produced is what we expect, and is safe. But the necessity of such tests shouldn’t prevent the development of artificial meat being a priority.
Artificial meat would provide people with the benefits of traditional meat – taste and nutrition – without the attendant suffering to animals. It would make the world a fairer place, since reduced land and water use, as well as reduced emissions, would mean that the rich’s meat consumption would no longer cause as much damage to the poor. Ultimately, mitigating climate change and its ensuing problems would benefit everyone. Therefore, we should make research into cultured meat a priority.