The moral limitations of in vitro meat

By Ben Levinstein and Anders Sandberg

Almost everybody agrees factory farming is morally outrageous, with several billions of animals living lives that are likely not worth living. One possible solution to this moral disaster is to make in vitro meat technologically and commercially viable. In vitro meat is biologically identical to real meat but cultured in a tank: one day it may become cheaper, more efficient and safer than normal meat. On animal welfare grounds, then, in vitro meat seems like a clear win as it has the potential to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for factory farms. However, there is a problem…

Factory farming is morally outrageous. To highlight a few of the atrocities: Laying chickens in the US are kept in cages under .06 square metres (around the size of an A4 sheet of paper) without exposure to natural light. They’re starved for 7-14 days to force molting and increase overall productivity. Chickens raised for meat grow disproportionately large breasts relative to their skeletons and internal organs. They frequently suffer “heart failure, trouble breathing, leg weakness, and chronic pain”. Pregnant sows, in most US states and much of the world, are confined to gestational crates, which usually do not allow them enough room even to turn around. Beef cattle begin their lives outside, but their final months are spent standing in their own waste in a feedlot with neither pasture nor much shelter. According to FAOSTAT estimates, tens of billions of animals are kept on factory farms each year. It’s fair to say that a significant percentage of them lead lives that are not worth living.

One possible solution to this moral disaster is to make in vitro meat technologically and commercially viable. In vitro meat is biologically identical to real meat (or, more generally, animal byproduct), but it’s grown in a lab instead of on an animal. In vitro meat is in its early stages and currently cost-prohibitive, but it could one day become much cheaper and efficient than normal meat, since its production wouldn’t require the resources needed to raise an animal. On animal welfare grounds, then, in vitro meat seems like a clear win as it has the potential to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for factory farms.

Although it would surely be a vast improvement relative to the current situation, I think in vitro meat is less morally enticing than it at first seems. The basic reason: if we stop or nearly stop raising livestock, then the sum of pig, cow, and chicken happiness in the world will be approximately zero. Although the sum currently is very likely negative, it would be a shame if virtual extinction of these species is our best moral option. On nearly any aggregative view in population ethics (i.e., on any view that cares about the net totality of well-being), we have strong prima facie reason to prefer humane farming practices to an in vitro meat takeover. Suppose, for instance, we could make factory farmed animals have lives that are on average just barely worth living. In that case, given the massive numbers of animals currently consumed, the totality of their happiness would still come out much higher than zero. So, total utilitarians have good reason to prefer farming reform. Other aggregative views require a higher baseline before a life counts as morally worth creating. But unless this baseline is quite high, it seems plausible that we could change farming conditions to ensure a satisfactory level of overall well-being.

For large populations of cows, pigs, and chickens to exist, we need to continue to slaughter them. There simply is no realistic alternative. However, it seems to me that raising a happy animal for a few years and then killing it humanely is preferable to not creating it at all.

A natural way to object is to point out that a similar argument applied to people leads to an absurd conclusion. Imagine we were to start farming people, whom we slaughter after a few decades. Even if we ensure they have generally happy lives and keep them ignorant of the fact that they’ll eventually be killed, we’ve acted terribly. It’s better not to create such people-farms, regardless of whether it leads to more total happiness in the universe.

There are two natural replies. First, the lives of farm animals, unlike the lives of humans, are plausibly fungible. They don’t have long-term plans and projects but instead lead moment-to-moment existences. Killing a chicken painlessly and then replacing it with another equally happy chicken is therefore disanalogous to killing a human and replacing it with another, given the distinct good-making features of chicken and human lives.

Second, and more importantly, the class of relevant alternatives is importantly different in the case of people. Farm animals will go nearly extinct if in vitro meat is successful. The only way to sustain any reasonable population, given economic realities, is to raise them for some length of time and then slaughter them. We don’t face a similar situation with people. If we wanted to sustain or increase the human population, we could do so in lots of ways that don’t involve murder.

If we faced a similar choice with humanity, however, matters would be far less clear. Imagine we had to decide between (a) human extinction or near extinction, and (b) a large population of relatively happy humans who would eventually be killed. If those really were the only two options, then (a), in this grim thought experiment, seems worse. That’s not to say that (b) is a morally fantastic outcome, but merely that it’s better than extinction.

A second objection appeals to the large opportunity cost of farming animals. In an article on in vitro meat, The Guardian reports that “30% of the earth’s usable surface is covered by pasture land for animals compared with just 4% used directly to feed humans”. If we’d got rid of farm animals, we’d have a lot of resources freed up.

This objection has some traction, but it depends on what we’d do with all that space. If we’d fill it with people, then assuming they’ll generally have good lives, this seems like a superior outcome. On the other hand, if the land would instead be filled with wild animals, then the outcome may well be worse. Wild animals often lead awful lives themselves, and more humane farming practices that geared toward animal welfare would likely lead to more overall and average animal happiness.

Finally, we might appeal to the terrible environmental cost of farming. Livestock accounts for around 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of methane emissions. Cutting down on the livestock population would be hugely beneficial to the planet.

This consideration may ultimately prove decisive. But in this case, in vitro meat would turn out to be morally better than humane farming in spite of its consequences for future livestock, not because of them. A possibly better option is to raise animals humanely and invest in technology that would reduce the environmental damage livestock causes. Ultimately, in vitro meat would result in great moral progress from where we currently stand, and we should continue to encourage its development. Indeed, if the option of large scale humane farming is not possible given agricultural and economic realities, it may be our long-term best option especially given livestock’s impact on the environment. However, those who care about animal well-being should recognise the limitations of in vitro meat. The aggregate utility of livestock if in vitro meat is commercially successful would be close to zero. It’s a shame if that’s the best we can do.

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12 Responses to The moral limitations of in vitro meat

  • Konrad says:

    You keep using ‘shame’ to describe the potential outcomes for livestock in this article. I would argue that extinction can be a good thing in this case, mostly because these animals have been artificially selected for meat, not fitness or utility and so wouldn’t function well outside of a world where they are slaughtered. The number of extinctions of wild species caused by clearing land for livestock and climate change contributed to by livestock is the real shame.
    This article has a very abolitionist tone, but any ecologist would tell you that your ideas would only cause harm in the long run.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      I would think most races of cows, chickens or lambs, despite being selected for traits not in their own interest, can live good lives. The fact that a species would not survive in the wild does not imply that it would be better if it did not exist.

      The post was written from an aggregative point of view, where the welfare of the individuals of species matter rather than species themselves. It is reasonable to say that the loss of biodiversity is a huge loss, but it is harder to build a consistent ethics giving value to species. How to trade the bad of suffering against the bad of biodiversity loss is unclear.

      • Peter Brietbart says:

        “It is reasonable to say that the loss of biodiversity is a huge loss”
        Hey Anders, have recently been reading a deal about ending wild animal suffering through either phasing out predators, or else reprogramming them (i.e., Peter Singer v David Pearce respectively). On this topic, I’d love to know your thoughts on the value of biodiversity, such that a vast reduction in the number of farmed animals would be considered a loss. Is the loss that – on classical utilitarian grounds – there is some uninhabited ecological niche that could be full of entities with net happiness?

        • Anders Sandberg says:

          I am personally convinced that diversity has value, and that a universe with more kinds of things and entities is a better one than a universe with fewer. But I do not know how to make this value commensurable with suffering/pleasure – is it just an aesthetic value that is lexically behind experience, or would enough diversity outweigh a given amount of suffering? I don’t know.

          However, filling an empty niche with happy entities would of course be a good thing. So yes, if we could make an equally diverse ecosystem without suffering it would be a good thing. And if a postagricultural world refills lost niches with new creatures it is also a good thing.

  • Hedonic Treader says:

    The domesticated animal species would not really go extinct. Even if 99.9% of all consumers would switch to alternatives, due to the large total, 0.1% of “real” animal product consumers would suffice to prevent species extinction.

    The WAS replacement argument is valid, but we probably could use another billion cars fueled by renewables instead of either feeding domesticated animals or keeping wild animals we’d like to displace. This incidentally seems pretty close to what the market would demand anyway.

    But the core assumption of the logic of the larder is that the domesticated animal’s lives are at least somewhat worth living. Getting to the point might not be cheap. Any extra subsidy to push in the right directs suffers the opportunity cost of alternative spending (including making hedonium in the long run, or just humans with intact human rights and good painkillers).

    Also it would require real improvements and acceptance of mostly irrational consumers of these improvements, which by default rules out many technological approaches.

  • comfortably anonymous says:

    “Almost everybody agrees factory farming is morally outrageous”

    No, not everyone agrees. I don’t know how I feel exactly, but “outrageous” is going too far. Perhaps a plausible stance is this.

  • John says:

    Lots of premises to question here: “The only way to sustain any reasonable population, given economic realities, is to raise them for some length of time and then slaughter them” Really? The cold wind of my old headmaster (who was wrong about many things) just brushed by me. What about the literally millions of hobbyist breeders who do it for shows and the love of it? These animals would not go extinct there would be millions of well cared for pigs, sheep, chickens, cows. I visited such a hobby farm recently. They have regular chicken breeding shows and even blow dry the roosters before the events, it’s highly competitive. They also breed small sheep and sell them to vineyards to eat the grass saving the winery millions in diesel per year. Sheep are good for grass in general, having (happy/managed) flocks would be needed in places. What about wool? Coming into summer many breeds need to be shorn to prevent heat stress. Pigs have other uses as well. Horse farms use other animals to maintain the property etc etc. Also people in general like these animals and some might keep them as semi companions. This argument has been made before but it just seems problem not solution focused. Wouldn’t it be better to ask: When we stop eating them how can we best manage smaller populations in ethical, useful win-win situations?

  • Paul says:

    Lots of premises to question here: “The only way to sustain any reasonable population, given economic realities, is to raise them for some length of time and then slaughter them” Really? The cold wind of my old headmaster (who was wrong about many things) just brushed by me. What about the literally millions of hobbyist breeders who do it for shows and the love of it? These animals would not go extinct there would be millions of well cared for pigs, sheep, chickens, cows. I visited such a hobby farm recently. They have regular chicken breeding shows and even blow dry the roosters before the events, it’s highly competitive. They also breed small sheep and sell them to vineyards to eat the grass saving the winery millions in diesel per year. Sheep are good for grass in general, having (happy/managed) flocks would be needed in places. What about wool? Coming into summer many breeds need to be shorn to prevent heat stress. Pigs have other uses as well. Horse farms use other animals to maintain the property etc etc. Also people in general like these animals and some might keep them as semi companions. This argument has been made before but it just seems problem not solution focused. Wouldn’t it be better to ask: When we stop eating them how can we best manage smaller populations in ethical, useful win-win situations?

  • Jason says:

    I second Paul’s sentiment about the “cold wind of his old headmaster.” To me, this post looks like a straightforward endorsement of the repugnant conclusion.

    The claim you make–that the only way to sustain large populations of animals is through humane slaughter, is dubious at best. Not only does it overlook the fact that large animal populations will be kept around for the many other products they can provide us with non-lethally, but also that, if the hedonic value of the remainder of the animal’s life outweighs the gain in value caused by the products extracted from it through humane slaughter (if there really is such a thing), then we ought to let it live.

    We can proceed by cases: If animals’ quality of life is very low, then we would also have a duty to improve its living conditions, as clearly huge gains in happiness can be achieved through marginal decreases in the number of living animals due to the nature of disease and crowding on animal welfare.

    If their quality of life is high, then humane slaughter would only be consequentially justified in the case of those animals whose futures have poor prospects (because they suffer from incurable illness, infirmity, or what have you).

    Ergo, the aggregate utilitarian ought to raise the welfare of animals to the level at which it would be unjustified to slaughter them, or not slaughter them in the first place. So she doesn’t endorse humane farming, only something akin to euthanasia.

    • wanderer says:

      Yeah, according to utilitarianism, what should matter is, given the current situation, how much quality of life improvement you can get per dollar. I don’t see why the zero point would matter.

  • wanderer / comfortably anonymous (same person) says:

    A word on thinking biodiversity has value for its own sake. I used to! But later I realized that, to the contrary, nothing matters for its own sake-things only matter to sentient minds. So I still care about biodiversity, but I now feel that it’s an aspect of keeping the world interesting for people who can have fun observing all the cool types of animals or seeing pristine nature as it existed thousands of years ago. Nature itself does not care, but to us, nature is awesome!

    So I’m not sure if there is any real reason to maintain lots of livestock. Few folks are going to walk around the chicken coops and think how cool these chickens are. These birds are not normal; they are bred to have lots of meat, so they are not very inspiring as natural animals either. A nature preserve with wild chickens would be better.

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