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Artificial meat – the best idea you’ve heard all year!

Last week scientists from Oxford and Amsterdam announced the results of an investigation into the environmental impact of growing meat artificially in labs rather than keeping livestock. They found that greenhouse gases would be reduced by up to 96%. In addition, cultured meat production would only require 1% of the land and 4% of the water that conventional meat does. They estimated that if more resources were put into the research, it would take about five years to produce artificial meat with the consistency of mincemeat, and another five years to produce steaks. Their conclusion is modest: “We are not saying that we could, or would necessarily want to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart right now.”  This modesty is misplaced – it should be considered not just desirable, but hugely important to replace conventional with artificial meat.

Think about the amazing feat under discussion. We’re not just talking about a substitute for meat – a slightly improved kind of Quorn. What they are producing is real meat, with the taste, texture and nutritional value of meat. And they are producing it in a way which cuts emissions of harmful gases by 96%! Climate change is a major threat facing the world today. Increases in the release of carbon dioxide and methane are leading to the planet heating up, which in turn will cause (potentially is already causing) floods in some areas, droughts in others, and also extreme forms of weather such as hurricanes. Meat production, particularly beef, is one of the major contributors to emissions. Replacing traditional meat with artificial meat would therefore make a huge difference to total emissions.

The other benefits of artificial meat are also significant. Beef cattle need large amounts of land for grazing, leading to deforestation to provide land for them. Lab-grown meat uses just 1% of the land which animals require. Rising food prices are currently a big problem for much of the world. Part of the problem is that meat is an inefficient source of energy – much more grain is required to feed enough animals to keep people well-fed, than would be required if people ate the grain itself. This pushes up the price of grain. Growing meat in a lab reduces the energy used by between 7 and 45%.

Last, but by no means least, is the plight of animals. To push down the price of meat, animals in factory farms are severely mistreated. If we’re not willing to pay enough for meat to allow animals to live adequate lives, and we’re not willing to give up eating meat, surely we ought to take seriously the possibility of replacing factory farmed animals with meat which can’t suffer.

What are the arguments against producing meal artificially? One argument is based on people’s reaction to the thought of where the meat came from. If people were repulsed by cultured meat, eating artificial meat would be less beneficial than eating conventional meat, since it produced less pleasure. Theoretically it might even be harmful, if people felt obliged to eat meat, but were repulsed by what was going into their body.

However, while it seems quite plausible that people would initially feel such meat to be rather grisly, the evidence seems to show that people are adept at ignoring where their food came from. Almost everyone has a rough idea of where their meat currently comes from, and that there is suffering involved, but we usually manage not think about that when we actually eat meat. This indicates that if we felt repulsed by the way artificial meat was produced, that would not necessarily stand in the way of our enjoyment of eating it.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that people would continue to feel that cultured meat is more grisly than factory farmed meat when they were used to it. Surely the idea that what is on your plate was once alive and was deliberately subjected to harm and then killed, is much less savoury than the idea that it was grown in a vat, whether in a lab or a factory.

A second reason for being hesitant about cultured meat is the possibility of its being physically harmful to people. In the past we have sometimes rushed into eating new substances, and it has back-fired. There is strong reason to think that this won’t be the case with cultured meat, since what is being produced is not a substitute for meat, but the very substance which we eat all the time. That is not to say that we should not apply rigorous tests to make sure what’s being produced is what we expect, and is safe. But the necessity of such tests shouldn’t prevent the development of artificial meat being a priority.

Artificial meat would provide people with the benefits of traditional meat – taste and nutrition – without the attendant suffering to animals. It would make the world a fairer place, since reduced land and water use, as well as reduced emissions, would mean that the rich’s meat consumption would no longer cause as much damage to the poor. Ultimately, mitigating climate change and its ensuing problems would benefit everyone. Therefore, we should make research into cultured meat a priority.

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16 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks, Michelle, for this interesting post. I definitely agree that cultured meat, if as environmentally friendly as these numbers suggest, should be seriously considered.

    2 further potential arguments I would enjoyhearing your thoughts on:

    1: If we are concerned with the "plight of animals," then replacing animals with "meat that cannot suffer" also implies a) meat that cannot feel pleasure and a) meat; which is no longer a sentient being. Thus it seems that an argument for the development of this technology by this criterion depends on a world in which the lives of cattle are not worth living. I imagine that this is true in some of the worst cattle yards, but I would be suprised if this was the rule. Much suffering may be the rule, but if we replace most of these cattle with cultured meat (as we would need to to realize the environmental benefits), which would mean that considerably fewer of the sentient creatures would exist, it might seem a little "off" to say that we are doing it for their own good.

    2. Any idea about cost effectiveness, however? Most who have experience culturing eukaryotic cells in the science lab will tell you that it is a pain. You have to regularly change out the specialized growth medium that baths the cells, keep them in environments with regulated temperature, humidity, and gas atmosphere, and keep everything meticulously aeseptic, as the cultures are prone to contamination by unwanted cultures like bacteria (often, the growth medium contains several antibiotics to minimize this risk – though granted that many livestock animals are fed antibiotics as well). robots in speciallized factories might be developed to replace the otherwise staggering manpower that would be needed to take care of these finiky cultures, but would certainly be expensive and not without its own environmental costs.

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      Thanks very much for your comments Matt!
      I definitely agree there is something strange about saying that we are preventing the existence of sentient creatures for their own good. The strength of the argument is heavily dependent upon empirical facts about how much suffering animals endure. There are many people who believe that factory-animals do not tend to have lives worth living. If that is the case, we seem to be deliberately bringing into existence large numbers of sentient creatures who won’t have lives worth living. It’s unlikely that demand for conventional meat will totally disappear, even when artificial meat is mass-produced. But hopefully, at that point, artificial meat can replace the animals who currently have lives not worth living. Those people who had a very strong preference for conventional meat would presumably be willing to pay a bit more for it, and so the animals could be given better lives. Perhaps there would also be an additional tax on conventional meat at that point, to counter-act the environmental damage it did.
      With regard to cost-effectiveness, I do not know much at all about the process. The article itself said the following: “Aside from its predicted environmental benefits, lab-cultured meat should also provide cheap nutrition…”. This indicates that the scientists believe that ultimately it would be more cost-effective than conventional meat. I don’t know to what extent that might be deemed over-optimistic, or reliant on as yet undeveloped technology, or to what extent it reflects the fact that there would be great economies of scale once it got off the ground.

  2. I'm fully supportive of in vitro meat being developed, and you make some excellent points.

    One thing I will query is that eating animals pushes up the price of grain. It seems easy to see why this would be the case; increasing demand for grain means farmers can sell it at a higher price. But if there was a reduced demand for grain, and the price initially fell, that would mean it would be less of an incentive to grow it in the first place. So supply would subsequently fall until we have a similar supply/demand ratio as currently, and hence a similar price.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      "Last week scientists from Oxford and Amsterdam announced the results of an investigation into the environmental impact of growing intelligence artificially in labs rather than allowing humans to breed. They found that greenhouse gases would be reduced by over 500%. In addition, cultured intelligence would only require 1% of the land and 4% of the water that conventional humans do.

      Think about the amazing feat under discussion. We’re not just talking about current robots, but real humanoids as a substitute for the human race. What they are producing is done in a way which virtually elminates emissions of harmful gases! Climate change is a major threat facing the world today. Increases in the release of carbon dioxide and methane are leading to the planet heating up, which in turn will cause (potentially is already causing) floods in some areas, droughts in others, and also extreme forms of weather such as hurricanes. Humans are virtually the sole contributors to emissions. Replacing traditional humans with artificial intelligence would therefore make a huge difference to total emissions.

      The other benefits of artificial meat are also significant. Humans need large amounts of land. Lab-grown intelligence uses just 1% of the land which animals require.

      Then comes the plight of animals, often reduced to extinction and commonly exposed to suffering in the hands of humans.

      Last, but no means least, comes the fact that humans have pretty much ruined the planet, especially in the last three centuries, and the extent of this ruination is still on an exponential curve……"

      1. Michelle Hutchinson

        I'm not exactly sure what point you are trying to make. If it's a reductio ad absurdum, meant to illustrate that animals have intrinsic, as well as instrumental value, just as humans do, then I wholly agree with you. But I think there's a strong case to be made that only lives worth living are valuable. In that case, assuming that most people have lives worth living, and that many farmed animals do not, replacing farmed animals would be much better than replacing all humans.
        On the other hand, if you're suggesting it would be better it the human race were to be replaced by a race which was less likely to destroy itself, and who's members would care more about each other and about other animals, there does seem to be an argument for that. It might depend on exactly what you mean by artificial intelligence.

        1. Anthony Drinkwater

          Thank you for replying, Michelle.
          I'm not sure, either, what point I was trying to make – a mixture of both, I guess. The pastiche sort of leapt to my consciousness for what that's worth. Perhaps it's just that I'm a little more than sceptical of announced wonder cures, especially as reported in the press, whatever the field of enquiry.
          But I will take issue on your view of lives worth living. Not on the grounds of "the sanctity of life", but on the more pragmatic grounds that most lives that are "not worth living" are not worth living because of external, almost invariably human, factors. I think that this applies to animal as well as human lives.
          Which implies that the answer to the problem of inhumane treatment of factory-bred and confined animals, is simply for us collectively to stop maltreating them rather than expect a magical solution to pop out of scientists' heads.

          1. I have actually argued that it would be a good idea to replace current humanity with solar-powered software, for environmental reasons: <a href="">A *really* green and sustainable humanity</a>. One of the benefits is of course that then we would not need to eat even plants for sustenance. Whether it would actually work is an interesting technical and philosophy of identity issue.

    2. There's a human need for food, some of which is supplied by grain (though how 'necessary' is this?). Markets compete with one another (feed crops; human consumption). How much land should be employed in growing grains? Would food crops be costlier if less land were used to grow feed crops?

    3. Michelle Hutchinson

      I think you make a very good point Matt, and one I am not qualified to answer. I guess the only thing I would say is that the same kind of reasoning seems to argue that there would be very little long-term change in prices, which doesn't seem to be the case.

      1. Well, perhaps there *would* be very little long-term change in prices if you excluded all the other variables and simply looked at supply and demand. But there are variables, e.g. financial speculation, and government subsidies, that distort the market. I guess the subsidy point may counter my argument, because if grain prices fell but farmers were financially protected to an extent, the incentive to stop growing grain would be weaker.

  3. I agree with the arguments in favor of this form of producing meat – cost-effectiveness seems to be a big barrier right now, but perhaps won't be so much in the future.

    I wonder, though, about the willingness of people to eat such meat. I've been watching the TV show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution lately, and one of Jamie's big things is educating people about where their food comes from; one central idea is, if people are educated, people will instinctually avoid the gross, unhealthy and artificial-chemical-laden foods that pervade many people's diets. But the success of artificial meat seems to depend on the opposite – people maintaining their ignorance about the origins of artificial meat just as they do their chicken nuggets (both processes would, I suspect, appear similarly gross/unappealing). Indeed, I would suspect that locavores, foodies and organic food supporters will strongly oppose artificial meat, for the same reasons they oppose the current modes of meat production/distribution; we might expect 'natural meat' to become a premium label that connoisseurs seek out.

    Ironically, I think the success of artificial meat will depend on its adoption by fast food joints and cafeterias, where consumers pay much less attention to the provenance of their food products. There, 'grossness' is somewhat irrelevant; the trifecta of cheap, tasty and safe (as opposed to environmentally friendly, healthy and ethical) is what will determine the success of artificial meat in that market.

    1. I wonder if the best way of getting people used to cultured meat is to go for the low-status 'mystery meat' route, or instead aim at the high status exotic gastronomy route. I can see the molecular gastronomy crowd going to designer meats when they are novel and still pricey.

  4. Dmitri Pisartchik

    I've yet to find the study, but I am quite skeptical of the viability of this kind of project in the near future. The timelines provided in the OP are overly optimistic, and the environmental impacts also seem a little rosy to me. Labs that would grow this meat would require immense infrastructure.

    All that said, as a vegetarian I still miss the taste and pleasure of eating meat. That its the height of BBQ season doesn't help either. At the same time, most of my reasons for not eating meat can be effectively negated with restructuring and improving the farming industry. The biggest concerns I have are (1) the suffering of animals while alive in factory farms and the painful deaths that ensue, and (2) the environmental impacts of factory farms. Both of these can be solved without recourse to artificial meat: Factory farms could be restructured into more hospitable environments that are less toxic to both animals and the environment, and killing could be done in a non-painful way (NO2 gas comes to mind).

  5. Great post Michelle. In most other areas this would be lauded. Consider the following conversation:

    Amy: Scientists are making a genuine attempt to massively lower the greenhouse gas emissions of humanity while simultaneously cutting pressures on forest destruction and helping to avoid massive famines caused by overpopulation and climate change.

    Ben: Wow! That certainly deserves some serious government support, especially if it is a proven idea, but where the technology is still in its infancy. Maybe it won't scale up as desired, or will run into other problems, but it is well worth making an investment in case it works even a tenth as well as that. What is it?

    Amy: They are planning to grow meat in laboratories instead of as animals.

    Ben: (!) That sounds creepy and stupid. Whatever.

    Sadly I think this is a pretty realistic reaction. Most people just can't take the idea seriously yet. But hopefully articles like the Guardian one and your own will help to get people to a place where they can assess it rationally.

    For people interested in helping with in vitro meat, the research mentioned here was actually funded by dedicated individuals through a non-profit called <a href="">New Harvest</a>. They mainly fund research by hiring professional grant writers to win the relevant grants. Seems like a very high leverage charity to me.

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