In vitro meat, new technologies, and the “yuck factor”

In vitro meat, recently discussed on this blog by Julian Savulescu, is gradually becoming a reality. It holds great promise, notably considering that billons of animals are slaughtered for food every year, often after spending miserable lives in factory farms, and that the current production of meat contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases. In spite of those facts, it seems highly unlikely that most meat-eaters will agree to give up meat anytime soon (though the success of the “meat-free Mondays” initiative in a number of different places should be saluted), yet they might well prove more willing to switch from traditionally produced meat to in vitro meat, if the latter were as healthy (or even healthier), reasonably priced, and tasted the same as the former.

 

Discussions of in vitro meat in the media most often cite the so-called “yuck factor” as a major obstacle to its general acceptance: i.e. the instinctive revulsion that many people feel at the idea of eating “unnatural” meat grown in a petri dish. I am inclined to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects of overcoming that obstacle: “unnatural” meat substitutes have already become popular among vegetarians, and some meat-eaters do consume them as well occasionally. Although in vitro meat should bear even more of an uncanny resemblance to the real thing than those substitutes (which might be why some people are revulsed by the idea), I would expect it to find success if issues of health and taste can be adequately dealt with. Now what if the yuck factor were to prove more of an issue than I anticipate? I believe the following points deserve to be emphasized:

1)    Our negative gut reactions often do not track any facts that should be granted any significance for our decision-making.

I have said in a previous blog entry that our gut feelings of revulsion towards certain behaviors do sometimes seem to have normative significance, and that we should not dismiss such reactions out of hand as irrelevant. Nevertheless, the revulsion elicited by the arrival of certain new technologies is often irrelevant from a normative point of view, and this very much applies in the case of in vitro meat. Of course, if someone’s instinctive reticence towards such meat were grounded e.g. in the concern that it might be unsafe, it would be reasonable. But if such concerns could be addressed, any revulsion one might still feel at the idea of eating something that had been produced in the lab and was therefore “unnatural” would not be tracking anything of any significance. In vitro meat would share those properties with many other inventions that are highly desirable and beneficial, such as life-saving medicines – one would just expect it to taste much better! Of course, medicines usually do not purport to look or taste like anything that exists “naturally”, but this again is of no significance whatever – chocolate eggs for instance do have such a purpose, yet this is hardly a reason to find them repugnant.

 

2)    Some of our negative gut reactions have been distorted by powerful economic and social forces.

I am inclined to think that if people were made keenly aware of the production process on which the meat that they consume depends on, their gut feelings would lead them to favour in vitro meat over real meat. The yuck factor is currently biased against in vitro meat mostly because modern society, influenced by the economic interests of the meat industry, encourages an almost complete disconnection in people’s minds between the poor treatment and killing of animals, and the sight of meat on their plate. For most meat-eaters (and this was my case when I used to eat meat), a steak or chicken breast fillet is simply something that somehow appears, as if by magic, on a supermarket shelf, ready to be cooked and enjoyed. Yet suppose that when eating out, people had to choose between two types of restaurant, each having various TV screens distributed throughout the premises. The first type serves traditional meat and, accordingly, its TV screens are continually showing the various stages of the process through which that meat was produced. The second restaurant only serves in vitro meat, and its screens show how it was grown in the lab. My guess is that very few people would choose to eat in the first type of restaurant. They would simply feel too uncomfortable and disgusted at e.g. the sight of pigs being confined to crowded, insalubrious warehouses, before being taken to the slaughterhouse to be stunned (sometimes improperly) and bled to death, one after the other. On the other hand, watching scientists manipulating muscle cells in a petri dish (even if they sometimes had to throw away one of their preparations after making a mistake) would, I think, be much less likely to make diners want to run out of the restaurant, or lose their appetite.

 

These two points also apply to other cases where the yuck factor tends to prevent many people from embracing a new technology that promises great benefits (such as therapeutic cloning).

 

So if you are a meat-eater who finds the idea of eating lab-grown meat repulsive, remember that (a) you are absolutely justified in being concerned about how healthy this meat will be and whether it will be tasty enough, but if your feelings persist even after these concerns have been resolved, then they don’t deserve to play any role in your decision-making; (b) if you hadn’t been taught to focus exclusively on the pleasurable qualities of meat and to keep the various dark aspects of the meat industry out of your mind, it is most likely that your gut feelings would tell you to prefer in vitro meat to conventional meat.

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5 Responses to In vitro meat, new technologies, and the “yuck factor”

  • Brian McKenzie says:

    Thanks for the update and discussion. See my own comments at

    http://apracticalphilosopher.blogspot.com/2012/02/wheres-cloned-beef.html

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    Thanks Alex. I think this is a great post. I have lots to add but will do so at a later time or give my comments to you personally. I agree with you that if meat eaters really saw how their meat was prepared, they wouldn't be so inclined to eat it. I could put this in more provocative terms, but I won't. Great post.

  • Nicolas Delon says:

    Interesting post, as was Julian Savulescu's previous one.

    In support your hypothesis that people would get a negative, gut reaction to seeing how their meat is prepared, see this rather funny (relative to the standards of the genre) candid camera which nicely illustrates the conflicting responses of meat-eaters: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUoCZOOxgv8&gt;

    I, for one, would welcome in-vitro meat, though I expect to undergo some resistance at the outset, but so would I if I ate actual meat again too. I'm reasonably confident that people's biases against "unnatural" meat can gradually be overcome, given the already overtly all but "natural" junk many are willing to pay for. I mean, most of my friends are well aware that perhaps the most "natural" ingredient in candies is pork-based gelatin, and they're not disgusted either by the unnaturalness of the remainder or by the pork. Healthy foods fare no better than fully artificial, if yummy, processed foods.

    As to your first point, I would not rule out there being some yuck reactions tracking to (yet undefined) relevant fact. Some of those reactions might be normatively relevant—e.g., assuming a suitable version of naturalism, they might have been selected for their fitness-enhancing character and might remain relevant in that respect. Still, that does not — or no longer — appear to be so with respect to meat-eating.

  • Alexandre Erler says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Nicolas: thanks for the link – great video! It's highly instructive to witness these people's reactions, even though none of them is determined enough to physically stop the guy (at least among those they've chosen to show)…

    Fully agree about the unhealthiness of much of the meat produced today, which is another reason why the yuck factor should attach to it.

  • Craig Loftus says:

    The discussion here portrays two extremes that meat-eaters have to choose from:
    * "conventional" meat, the animals associated with which spend wretched lives being fed soya and grain, are in-expertly butchered, wrapped in plastic and air-freighted to our supermarket shelves;

    * pitted against "in vitro meat", the path for all people to an environmentally benign vegan future.

    If I were a meat eater (which I am not) why would I even engage with such a ludicrously simplistic argument? If I accepted that I needed to reduce my consumption of conventional meat for environmental reasons, why would I choose in-vitro meat as the alternative? I would mostly just be replacing one oil fueled industrial process with another.

    In-vitro meat whatever its full life-cycle costs is almost certainly going to end up cheaper and less environmentally damaging than "conventional" meat, however, how will it compare with UK dairy beef? I.e., bullocks coming from dairy herds which are fed grass and provide beef, fertilizer and (potentially) labour co-products?

  • Alexandre Erler says:

    Craig: this article focuses on the so-called "yuck factor" as a potential obstacle to the acceptance of in vitro meat, particularly among meat eaters. According to worldwatch.org, today "factory farms account for 67 percent of poultry meat production, 50 percent of egg production, and 42 percent of pork production" (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5443). These figures are expected to rise to meet the rising global demand for meat. I.e. factory farming is hardly a marginal phenomenon, it is set to become the dominant mode of meat production worldwide. Under these conditions, it strikes me as appropriate to point out that the yuck factor would likely apply even more to that mode of production than to in vitro meat, if only people were not taught to close their eyes on the nature of industrialized meat production.

    "I would mostly just be replacing one oil fueled industrial process with another": you'd need to give us some evidence to back up that very bold assertion. Recent research suggests on the contrary that in vitro meat could potentially be much more environmentally-friendly than conventionally produced meat. See e.g.
    Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos, "Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production", Environmental Science & Technology (2011) 45 (14), 6117-6123.

    Of course free range meat already exists as an alternative to factory-farmed meat, and it would certainly be a huge step forward if all meat-eaters made sure they only consumed the former. However, leaving aside the fact that this method of meat production still involves the killing of animals, the obvious issue with such a solution is that it would not be able to satisfy the growing global demand for meat.

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