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Press Release: Ethical Meat

On Monday, London will see the world’s first artificial meat burger cooked and tasted, by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University.

Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.

The development of artificial meat is a triumph for both science and ethics.  Current meat production involves inflicting significant suffering on animals. It also causes environmental damage (see the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow) and is hugely inefficient because limited food resources have used to keep a large animal alive. Intensive farming of chickens and pigs is also a breeding ground for the emergence of new strains of flu, causing pandemics that could kill tens of millions. Artificial meat production will almost entirely avoid these issues.

Ethical veganism will become a much more palatable option, as one could avoid eating real meat without sacrificing an integral part of many people’s diet.  Indeed, this may be a watershed moment for animal welfare – if artificial meat manages to catch on and take over a large portion of the market, many fewer animals will be cruelly raised and slaughtered through factory farming, a key goal of movements like PETA (who have, incidentally, wholly endorsed and promoted the development of artificial meat).

Of course, such large-scale beneficial effects will only be realized under three conditions: the artificial meat must be safe, cheap and tasty.  The safety of Mark Post’s concoction is as yet unknown, but may well be the easiest condition to satisfy.  In fact, it could become more safer as meat production could be laboratory controlled and reduce risks of emergent pandemics from flu passing from animals to humans. If he is correct and the meat is identical at the cellular level to actual meat, it should be no less dangerous – though further tests are undoubtedly needed before it could be offered to the public at large.  As for cost, previous estimates put Post’s burger at around £250,000, obviously prohibitive for mainstream consumption.  Just as the cost of genetic sequencing has fallen precipitously over the years, we can expect artificial meat prices to fall as more efficient means of production are developed.  It remains to be seen whether artificial meat can ever be made more efficiently and cheaply than real meat, however.  Finally, one of the most important tests of Monday’s event is whether the artificial meat will actually be palatable.  It may be that the meat is only suitable simulating ground up meat and mixed with other ingredients to add texture and flavour – but then again, outlets like McDonald’s have made a mint producing widely-enjoyed meat out of an infamous ‘pink sludge’ that is quite disgusting on its own.  Indeed, of all potential adopters, the fast-food industry – which relies on efficiency and artificiality much more than aesthetics or ‘all-natural’ ingredients – seems like the most likely outlet for artificial meat.

Perhaps the future of the fast food industry is ethical meat, instead of the unethical meat. Consumers would be hard pressed to tell the difference between an artificial Big Mac and the current one.

Some might object that artificial meat is unnatural. So it should be avoided.  True, the meat would be grown in a lab rather than a farm.  But what value does naturalness have, on its own?  Natural meat often relies on the confinement and slaughter of animals, which many have noted is morally wrong – and in fact, the factory farms where most meat is produced are hardly ‘natural’ environments.  In factory farming, they more resemble hideous torture chambers where animals eat their own faeces. Moreover, we are perfectly content to introduce numerous artificial elements into all aspects of our lives – phones replace natural communication, cars replace natural transport, factories replace natural craftsmanship, houses replace natural abodes, and so on.  Part of human development is to improve upon the natural state of the world, and artificial meat is just another such development.  It is not only inevitable, but should be encouraged and welcomed with open arms.

There is one ethical downside to creating artificial meat. Many animals would not come into existence who would have lived and many farmers might lose their livelihoods. The solution maybe to combine artificial meat production with controls on farming to ensure animals that are brought into existence for farming purposes only have happy, worthwhile lives and are slaughtered in humane ways.

We hope the creation of artificial meat will prompt a thoughtful debate on the ethics of food production and eating.


Owen Schaefer

Doctoral Candidate in Philosophy

University of Oxford


Julian Savulescu

Professor of Practical Ethics

University of Oxford
+441865 286888 or +447720593492

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9 Comment on this post

  1. In your last paragraph you touch on a question that has been bugging me. While those of us who care about animal suffering may commend this development, for its potential to displace low-welfare meat in people’s diets, should we personally prefer artificial meat, or high-welfare meat? The latter will use more resources, but it will also involve the living of a quite possibly happy life. The answer is not clear to me.

    1. To an extent it’s an empirical question I think. What’s the difference in resources expended, what will those resources be used for, how do their uses compare in consequences to the living of the animal’s life.

  2. This is indeed a welcome development. I doubt that taste will prove a problem (it should be possible to engineer all kinds of subtle variations in flavour), but there’s still a serious question mark over the economics. But if that can be overcome, meat will become a less ethically problematic food source than is currently the case. Livestock in the form of sheep, goats & cattle (for wool & milk) and poultry (for eggs) would still be plentiful, and pigs apparently make good companion animals 🙂

  3. “There is one ethical downside to creating artificial meat. Many animals would not come into existence who would have lived… ”

    An animal isn’t harmed by not coming into existence. So this isn’t much of a drawback. Relatedly, this argument seems to assume a total utilitarianism view as opposed to average utilitarianism.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Edmund questions whether consuming artificial meat or real meat produced under ‘ethical’ conditions is preferable, given that ethically-produced animals have rather good lives. Firstly, this presupposes it is not wrong to kill livestock – but there are compelling arguments that livestock generally have a compelling interest in continuing to survive, in which case even ‘ethical’ slaughter is problematic. But if one rejects those arguments, we can compare the current dilemma of being vegetarian/vegan vs. consuming ethically-raised meat. Does one actually have an obligation to consume the ethically-raised meat rather than be a vegetarian/vegan, in order to bring about happier animals? I think this would be a bit absurd, and the potential environmental benefits are enough to tip the balance in favor of consuming artificial meat. Still, the happy animals argument might motivate strict regulations (both humane and environmental) on animal farming, rather than an outright ban – even when artificial meat is available as a cheap. safe and tasty alternative.

    Adam astutely points out that the ‘happy’ animals wouldn’t be individually harmed by not coming into existence – quite right, but of course the question remains whether such would nevertheless be a worse state of affairs. This need not assume total utilitarianism – perhaps the animals brought into existence have better-than-average well-being, raising the average. And (contra Benatar), one might think that – though one cannot be harmed by failing to exist, since there is no individual to be harmed – one can be benefitted by coming into existence. Very briefly, perhaps it is good for the animals that they exist (assuming they have lives worth living). It could then be morally problematic to fail to provide a substantial benefit to animals by completely eradicating (hypothetically) happy farms.

  5. The “drawback” associated with the animals not existing would be that the planet would become even more focused on the needs of a single large animal species – Homo sapiens – with other animals pushed even further to the margins. This was always the probable consequence of a policy of universal veganism (given that vegans tend to disapprove of any use at all of domesticated animals), something the vegans don’t have to worry about because they know it’s very unlikely that most people will follow their example. But if it were to happen, domesticated animals would die out becausein in a vegan world, agricultural land must cater soley to our needs, and even if they could survive in the wild, there isn’t enough “wild” left to offer them.

    Hopefully artificial meat will not have such a stark consequence for domesticated animals, and we may be able to maintain them for a range of purposes while significantly improving their quality of life.

  6. I too welcome the advent of artificial meat, but I must admit I was quite shocked to read the penultimate paragraph of this piece, which generated the bulk of the discussion so far.

    I tentatively propose to settle the so-called ethical problem of not bringing into existence animals which could potentially have been happy, by the simple expedient of paraphrasing the offending paragraph:

    There is one ethical downside to creating artificial human meat. Many people would not come into existence who would have lived and many farmers might lose their livelihoods. The solution maybe to combine artificial meat production with controls on human farming to ensure people that are brought into existence for farming purposes only have happy, worthwhile lives and are slaughtered in humane ways.

    Average cow lifespan is 20 years, whereas beef cattle are slaughtered before reaching 18 months of age, and dairy cattle are spent and slaughtered by age 4. So our hypothetical human farm would be slaughtering humans around ages 6 or 16. Is there really an ethical problem in not raising happy children and eating them by age 6? Was the witch from Hansel & Gretel right all along?

    Also, people suggesting the prevalence of dairy cattle are probably unaware of what it is that dairy entails in terms of logistics and animal suffering. While ethical dairy is logically conceivable, it would have very little to do with what currently goes on in dairy farms, and would render milk one or two orders of magnitude more expensive. For one thing, farmers would have to manage a herd where only half the animals was productive, since bulls are economically useless most of the time, and the current practice of slaughtering male calves (yes, even on “family farms”) is obviously unethical.

    1. Pietro –

      Your substitution of human for non-human animal is fair enough, if one assumes a moral equivalence between the two – or, more minimally, one assumes that they both have a similarly strong right not to be enslaved/killed. Tom Reagan is probably the most prominent proponent of this view, but it is far from universally shared even among those in the animal rights movement (cf. Peter Singer…then again, a utilitarian like Singer may well endorse the human farming if the people were happy enough…). Personally, I’m ambivalent over this issue – the final note serves more as a rebuttal internal to the arguments of those who think the failure to create happy animals for slaughter poses a problem for artificial meat, rather than as a full endorsement of it as a policy proposal.

      As for dairy – true indeed that many animals suffer cruel treatment in dairy production, and are killed prematurely in due course. My hope is that, just as artificial meat is being developed, artificial dairy will also be developed down the line..

      Also, your substitution brings up an ancillary issue – what about the possibility of using this technology to develop artificial human meat, for a small minority with a perverse desire to consume human flesh? Is there anything ethically wrong with that? Perhaps the specter of cannibalism is too much for some people, but I for one don’t see anything wrong with it. The typical wrongness of cannibalism is that a) people are killed and/or b) their bodies desecrated. Artificial human meat involves neither, so I’m inclined to think there’s no moral reason to oppose such a development (though aesthetic concerns may well remain). Food for thought, if you’ll forgive the pun 🙂

  7. Owen, thanks for your thoughtful response!

    I agree that the animal/human moral equivalence is far from unanimous. However, I don’t think it is necessary to assume this equivalence in order to find strange the ethical “problem” of not bringing persons into existence. (Let’s call it the potential happiness problem, or PH for short.)

    I didn’t mean to assert A/H moral equivalence in my analogy. I meant instead to point out that, in other instances of caring about a group enough not to kill them — e.g. caring about human children enough to be horrified at the prospect of eating them — PH is not considered a problem at all. In fact, attempting to solve PH (by farming happy children) is seen as evil.

    My Singerian view is that PH is seen as a problem in the case of animals (and I’ve heard it raised by several people) because of specieist bias. We’re unfazed by animal deaths. We find it too easy, automatic even, to view animals as objects — as means rather than ends. Thus the thin veneer of PH suffices to convince us that using them for our purposes is all right.

    I agree with your stance on artificial human meat; if I try to find a problem with it, all I can come up with is that it might tempt some to go on to real cannibalism. But I think this is a very weak problem.

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