The Promises of Synthetic Meat

There was understandably quite a bit of attention directed at the unveiling of the world’s first “synthetic” meat (described above). Also known as in vitro meat, the implications of this tepidly-received development is vast — namely the end to the industrial-scale slaughter of literally billions of animals annually, in addition to the subsequent strain to our environment and resources that such livestock harvesting entails.

Obviously, even if scientists perfect the process to make it more palatable (both commercially and in terms of taste), there will always be purists who prefer the real deal, or folks who simply won’t be comfortable with the idea of artificial meat. I imagine it would take some time to get used to the idea, and even then I don’t see it replacing animal harvesting any time soon, except for desperate circumstances like food scarcity.

Still, any sort of mitigation of widespread animal suffering is welcomed. Australian Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most famous and controversial moral philosophers in the world, characteristically weighed in on the subject (he is best known for his seminal work, Animal Liberation, which is widely considered to have set the foundational framework of the animal rights movement). His statement was first issued in The Guardian, and it pretty much sums up the reasons for my anticipation.

There are important ethical reasons why we should replace animal meat with in vitro meat, if we can do it at reasonable cost. The first is to reduce animal suffering. Just as the cruelty inflicted on working horses, so movingly depicted in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, was eventually eliminated by the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, so the vastly greater quantity of suffering that is inflicted on tens of billions of animals in today’s factory farms could be eliminated by a more efficient way of producing meat.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to applaud such an outcome. But it needn’t be simply an emotional response. Among philosophers who discuss the ethics of our treatment of animals there is a remarkable degree of consensus that factory farming violates basic ethical principles that extend beyond the boundary of our own species. Even a staunch conservative such as Roger Scruton, who vigorously defended hunting foxes with hounds, has written that a true morality of animal welfare ought to begin from the premise that factory farming is wrong.

The second reason for replacing animal meat is environmental. Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees. Much of the emissions from livestock is methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas emitted by ruminant animals as they digest their food. In vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary. With that single change, the world’s production of nitrous oxide, another powerful contributor to climate change, will be slashed by two-thirds.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock exceed those from all forms of transport – cars, trucks, planes and ships – combined. On some calculations, livestock emissions in countries with large populations of cattle and sheep can make up as much as half of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If they are right, replacing coal and other fossil fuels with clean sources of energy is not going to be enough. We have to reduce the number of cattle on the planet.

At the rate things are going, humanity may not have much of a choice but to embrace artificial meat. Although the number of vegetarians in the world seems somewhat stagnant, there is growing concern about the ethical dilemmas posed by industrial farming. And with the environment reaching a boiling point — literally — we can’t spare any more natural resources for very much longer to meet the world’s growing demand for animal flesh. I say this as both a vegetarian and a secular humanist. With that background disclosed, what are your thoughts on this development?