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News from the future: you will have in vitro meat hamburgers within five years

A group of Dutch researchers has announced
a few days ago that they have produced the first in vitro meat. Attempts to
create in vitro meat started in 2001 and the Dutch government put $2 to support
research in this field, while PETA offered a $1 prize to the first team of
researchers that could produce edible in vitro meat by 2012. Researchers in
Norway (In vitro meat consortium) and in the United States (New Harvest) are
working on this issue as well, so we can reasonably expect that results will
come soon.

 “In vitro” or “cultured” meat is produced in a cell culture
by taking cells from an animal and proliferating them in a nutrient-rich medium (read here)

At the moment, it is still not possible to
produce edible in vitro meat, though it is likely that, within about a decade, we
will be able to buy processed in vitro meat products as sausages and chicken
nuggets.  The final goal, however,
is the production of entire muscle organs, but getting there will probably take

Why all this effort to produce in vitro
meat? The answer is straightforward: the benefits of substituting normal meat
with in vitro meat are just enormous. Here I shall mention just a few.

1)    In vitro meat is environmentally sustainable. At the moment meat
production is responsible for the emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus,
pesticide contamination of water, heavy metal contamination of soil, and acid
rain from ammonia emissions (read here).
The United Nations expect the consumption of meat and dairy products to double
by 2050, this means the production of methane and other pollution will have a
serious impact on climate. Meat produced in vitro, however, will have no such
adverse impacts.

 2)    In vitro meat is healthier and safer. At the moment we do not have
control on the percentage of fats, hormones, additives, antibiotics and other
unhealthy substances in meat procured from living animals. What we know for
sure is that a high consumption of saturated fats is associated to higher rates
of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Cultured meat could contain, by
contrast, a healthy balance of fats and other macro- and micro-nutrients.  In addition, it will be safer because
free from pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, pathogenic E. coli,
Avian influenza and Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

 3)    In vitro meat will be cheaper. 
Many of the costs for feeding grains, animals, transport, manufacturing
etc will be just cut off automatically reducing the final price of in vitro
meat. As a
consequence, developing countries will have access to a vary and higher protein
diet. Wastes will also be dramatically reduced because inedible animal parts,
such as bones and skin, will not be grown.

     4)    In vitro meat will be humane. Because it will not come from living
animals raised in factory-farms, in vitro meat will eliminate an incalculable
amount of suffering in the world.

There are,
however, some objections to in vitro meat.

Some are
sceptical because there is no evidence that this meat will not be dangerous for
human health. It is quite obvious that safety of these products will be tested
before delivering them into the supermarkets, but also there is something else
we need to consider. What we know now is that animal meat is unhealthy, unsafe and
environmentally not sustainable. On the other hand we do not have any good
reason to think that in vitro meat will be dangerous. As with genetically
modified organisms, we have on the one hand the certainty that vegetables we
eat now are full of carcinogen pesticides and on the other hand there is no
scientific evidence that MGO could be dangerous. Very probably this scepticism
is rooted in an irrational “yuck factor” which lacks any reasonable scientific

  Another, more serious, objection is based on concerns
about countries which fund their economy on the production/export of meat. But
human societies and their economies change all the time and this would not be
the first revolution in the history of humanity. If Luddism had prevailed
during the industrial revolution we would live now in a rural society, missing
all the uncountable benefits brought into our lives by the industrial
revolution. Every change implies costs and benefits, but if the foreseen
benefits overweight the costs, then the change is morally justified and
desirable. Apart from this consideration, it is not sure that these societies
will be economically damaged by this change. They will maybe base their economy
on activities which will allow them to develop more quickly.


The Vegetarian Society pointed out a quite
banal objection which is that we will never be sure we are actually eating in
vitro meat. But we already buy organic food, sugarless candies, fat free yogurt
etc and we just trust that we are actually eating what the label tells, because
we know that there are controls on the industrial production of food. So why
should be the in vitro meat a different case?

 So I think that, when in vitro meat becomes
available, the benefits to the environment, to the animals and to ourselves
highlighted above will give us good reasons for choosing it instead of ordinary
meat. Furthermore, the fact that there are strong moral reasons to do it
implies that there is also a strong moral duty do it, and in this case maybe a
legal duty should follow. For instance, highly polluting sources of energy have
been banned and we now are compelled to use leadfree petrol. Maybe in the
future animal meat will be banned in favour of the more ethical in vitro meat
as well.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Seems reasonable. The only serious objection I can think of is the possibility that the pleasure felt by animals in the industry would outweigh their suffering. If this were the case the huge reduction in animal life-years could be a catastrophe.

    Of course, intuitively this may seem very unlikely, probably the animal industry causes a huge surplus of pain rather than pleasure. But until someone has investigated the question empirically I can’t see this objection as completely refuted.

  2. “pointed out a quite banal objection which is that we will never be sure we are actually eating in vitro meat”. I understand the moral point, but from a practical perspective, if in vitro meat is indeed cheaper to produce, the problem will be the opposite: we will never be sure we are actually eating meat from animals. I cannot imagine the producers trying to trick the consumers by using more expensive “raw material”, it’s always the other way around.

  3. Points 1-3 will likely be true *eventually*. However, it will take a while to develop methods that do not need bovine serum to grow the tissue (ideally the nutrients should come from a algae bioreactor fed by agricultural waste) or make it cheap.

    In the meantime it will be more of an exotic thing for molecular gastronomy. In vitro meat does have interesting aesthetic potential since we could actually go outside what has previously existed in terms of shape, texture, and taste.

  4. I’m surprised these researchers were motivated by a $1 prize and $2 in research funding. In vitro meat scientists must be even cheaper than mathematicians and philosophers!

    “we will never be sure we are actually eating in vitro meat” … ah, the old “Sweeney Todd objection”! But then we can’t be sure our “tomatoes” are not painted balls of ear wax either, can we?

  5. Of course, with in vitro meat it might be moral to eat human meat. I guess some would say this kind of food is bad for human dignity, but the case seems to be weak given that we accept the use of other human products (e.g. hair) for non-vital purposes. But then again, I am a hopeless consequentialist. I better keep to my panda sausages and platypusburgers.

    Effective in vitro growth might also allow ethical leather or fur production. Again, it might be possible to get a jacket made out of one’s own cloned skin. No doubt the shock value will disappear rapidly.

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