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.