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On In Vitro Meat: The Question

When I say: What are your thoughts? that's what I mean. And your thoughts lead in various directions and gel in those directions (or not) among us and also often reveal one particular question.

To recap yesterday and also to clarify my thoughts and intentions:

  • I wasn't thinking any vegans would want to eat flesh grown in sheets in a laboratory. However, I was thinking non-vegans would, as some currently eat sphincters and lips and cartilage, not to mention kidneys and livers (do they not know what those organs do?), and you can't get that much worse than all that. I never underestimate the human willingness to eat anything, except perhaps Soylent Green. And that's only if they knew what it was. And maybe feces–that would be a tough sell (but Google "products made from feces" and see what happens).
  • If you read the articles on the technology, you'll find that the ability to control which"type" of flesh (re: texture, marbling and all that) is a benefit. Also, it would be healthier, allegedly, as there would be no environmental toxins, growth hormones or antibiotics involved. Not to mention, as one of the farmers said, animals don't come in convenient shapes to make into meat. There's all that bone and tendon and the head and eyeballs, and it's a lot of work to get what you want. Cultured meat is just the part you want, he said.
  • The aspects of environment degradation associated with CAFOs as well as small farms would be nonexistent.
  • More people are eating animals than ever.

The angle my mind goes to is food supply. This is by no means the ideal solution, but if we significantly decrease the number of sentient nonhumans brought into this world only to be dominated, exploited and slaughtered for parts, isn't that good? Fewer animals will be bred to die. How do you argue with that?

Now, does it address speciesism or animal rights? I don't think so (does anyone disagree?). But I hope that there isn't anyone who will not support this effort simple because PeTA does. (And yes, they will claim victory, but it's going to take a lot more than $1 million.)

Considering that consumption of sentient nonhumans is on the rise, and if we could distill this down a bit as there are some unknowns and there's the factor of time (we don't know the ETA), here's the question: Do you think it is in fact ethical to support in vitro meat as a way to use fewer animals? That's what it does. A very thick steak hasn't been perfected, but thinner "cuts" have. People all over the world could have their taste for blood met without animals having to be brought into existence to satiate it.

When I say "support," by the way, I don't mean financial support. I'm pretty sure you all would rather give to a sanctuary or donate rice and beans to a food bank rather than invest in cultured meat (and if not, speak up!). Other than PeTA, the financial support allocated to this venture wasn't taken from the vegan education portion of any budget and moved to the culturing of flesh. Given that, and given that the goal of vegan education is to decrease the use of animals and in vitro meat does that, by definition, I think I'd have to say that I like the idea of a guaranteed decrease in the use of animals, and don't think supporting it for the purpose of the food supply is wildly at odds with being vegan. Would I rather there were no potential of cultured meat or live animals used for their flesh? Yes. But that's not the question.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    I look at support for in vitro flesh similar to support for the health and environment arguments: they're okay as side issues, but my issue is eliminating speciesism and insisting on the full moral and legal personhood of sentient nonhuman beings.

    February 10, 2009
  2. Angus #

    Yes, all things considered, I support the development of in-vitro meat as a way of reducing the number of exploited animals. Although in itself the promotion of in-vitro meat will do nothing to lessen speciesism, it will open a space, perhaps eventually a very large space, both for reversing the magnitude of animal exploitation and for facilitating thinking differently about the "need" to exploit animals at all. I would never eat in-vitro meat, but I can imagine a future when people who relish eating meat are repulsed at the thought that once upon a time real animals were killed for their flesh.

    Does even "mock meat" perpetuate the idea that eating animal flesh is okay? I doubt it. Personally, I don't think of seitan or soyburgers or whatever as "mock" anything. But here's an argument that animal rights is not compatible with eating such food:

    February 10, 2009
  3. It seems to me that one of the major reasons that people aren't willing to grant rights to animals is because of the utility of animals. Primarily because we eat them. If there were a way that people could eat meat without affecting the animals – then getting them to grant rights to animals might be easier to make. This has the potential to remove one of the largest barriers to adoption of animal rights among the mainstream public.

    February 10, 2009
  4. "guaranteed decrease" seems overly rosy
    It will be very tough sledding successfully bringing this stuff to market.

    Also, as I am not a consequentialist, major ethical questions regarding development and production are still outstanding.

    Confining someone for purposes of obtaining muscle biopsies is morally unacceptable.

    Unfortunately, we need to practice talking about this issue, because it will stick around.

    If the New Harvest group is any example, the in vitro folks will bolster attention upon welfarist concerns.

    I will not be lending any support to what I view primarily as a distraction with a tremendous opportunity cost (even less focus on veganism). I suspect the vegetarian/"abolition of meat" crowd will be very excited about growing nonhuman flesh in vitro. My attention lies elsewhere.

    February 10, 2009
  5. I see a possible problem with the "comodification" aspect of in vitro flesh, as the article cited by Angus tries to argue; however, it's consequential — in vitro flesh will impede the necessary gestalt shift away from the animals-as-things paradigm. However, my reasoning about animal rights is intrinsically tied to interests. Therefore, in a theoretical vacuum, if these processes resulted in decreased exploitation of nonhuman animals, it seems to be an ethically defensible position.

    February 10, 2009
  6. I've been excited about New Harvest since I first heard of them in 2004.
    Even though back then, the whole presentation
    was about money, without one word about the benefit to animals.
    Would I eat in vitro meat? Probably not but I'd have no problem buying it for my companions.

    February 10, 2009
  7. Morganna #

    I think in-vitro meat is a great idea to get meat eaters away from actually killing animals. I think almost all people eat meat for reasons that have nothing to do with the killing (ie they don't get a charge from eating a dead being), they eat it for the taste, the protein, the versatility in cooking or similar reasons. I think most people who eat meat for those reasons would at least try a substitute, and stick with it if the taste were the same. The way typical Americans live is in no way sustainable on this planet, let alone everyone else trying to live the same way. At the same time, almost no one wants to give things up for the sake of compassion or the planet. I think in-vitro meat is one way to get all those people who want to eat meat regularly to eat something similar
    while not exploiting animals and being a little more sustainable on the planet (it's not a magic bullet, but maybe it would help a little).

    I also think that the exploitation of animals will be greatly reduced with the development of in-vitro meat. Right now, muscle biopsies, in my opinion, are much less exploitative than killing. And I suspect that animals won't be involved at all, in any stage, in the final products. Yes, some exploitation is taking place in the development stages, but I don't think that's a reason to oppose in-vitro meat all together (as we keep hearing lately, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good).

    February 10, 2009
  8. I would (pragmatically) support it – in the way of not protesting it. If invitro might someday free the animals (at least from the torture of being a gastronomic fetish)- then the sheer numbers win out.

    But what's odd is that this "commodity" for millions, could be supplied, in essence by "one". The "one" then ironically does become "The sacrificial lamb" so to speak. Will that "one" become an icon to all who eat of it's flesh? Will she be enshrined and worshipped as her cultured cells and tissue is consumed? Strange makings for yet another sci-fi… right up there with Soylent Green.

    February 10, 2009
  9. Joe #

    I have mixed emotions about in vitro meat. Of course, it would be great to end the massive slaughter of other animals, but would it really help? I think that in vitro meat will start a movement of people who want "real meat." We have a huge bias in our culture toward what we consider natural, and people will reject in vitro meat on the grounds that it is not natural. Since animal rights activists are not concerned with the amount of animals killed, I do not know that I could support in vitro meat knowing that it will certainly lead to more animals being killed.

    February 11, 2009
  10. Dan #


    To elaborate on your doubts about the argument in the article you linked to, I’d like to point out why the argument regarding “mock meat” is not even plausible.

    The writer of the paper, Susan Turner, commits a rather large fallacy by conflating the name we call something with what that thing actually is. The faux ‘meat’ is not really a “chicken patty” (notwithstanding the marketing label on the box); rather, it is really flavored and textured vegetable protein (as you said, you don’t think of it as “mock” anything; neither do I). Turner’s argument should have been, if anything, that we should oppose naming or referring to textured vegetable protein with names that refer to species of nonhuman beings and come up with non-speciesist names. The same goes with faux leather (although ‘leather’ is not the name of an animal).

    As to the battle over what we call TVP (or seitan or bean curd or some combination of all), I have never viewed chickens as a resource from eating Boca’s vegan patties and I have more important speciesism to battle than the comparatively trivial speciesism implied in a name. At this point in history, fighting the good fight means getting people to stop eating animal products in favor of the vegetable stuff with the unfortunate speciesist name.

    Turner’s argument is plausible if it’s applied to in vitro flesh, however, because that might “represent individuals of that species as resources [or food]”. This argument, while plausible, is unconvincing if we know it is in vitro and nobody was exploited for it (except for an injection a long time ago, which is, quite honestly, trivial, so long as the individual was treated with respect, never intentionally killed, etc).

    Turner’s argument is convincing if it’s applied to secondhand leather or other animal products because 1) the real economics of the situation is that any purchase, no matter how far down the hand-down trail, does display demand for the product, and 2) an animal almost certainly was exploited for that leather (unless the leather came from a dead wild animal).

    February 11, 2009
  11. My thoughts, in list order, as usual 🙂
    – If in vitro meat were available for sale at reasonable prices, I would buy it to feed my cats. I would buy it and donate it to animal shelters.
    – I would not eat it.
    – In vitro science is changing the ethics of animal testing, it makes sense that it would change the ethics of animal eating.
    – Glenn, they aren't "reasons" that keep people from granting rights to animals, they're excuses: habit, ignorance, custom, taste…
    – For human health reasons, it makes sense to shift away from meat-eating but in vitro meat supports it

    February 12, 2009
  12. Scott #

    If in the future scientists will be able to produce and market in vitro meat without any animal use at all (and I think they will), I wouldn't have a problem eating it (I'm vegan now).

    I'm curious why others have said that they wouldn't. Is there a reason other than habit / general acquired distaste?

    February 12, 2009
  13. Dan #

    Acquired disgust for me, Scott. For example, human flesh on the grill probably smells and tastes approximately like pork, but the whole idea of consuming real flesh of any kind is repulsive to me now, moral considerations aside.

    February 13, 2009
  14. Hi Scott… I would have to ask first – "why"? Why if there is nothing lacking in the tastiness or pleasure of my current foods… if there is nothing missing nutritionally, or in convenience, or cost, why would I add something that might be of harm?

    I think invitro meats will probably include fats and cholesterol (which I don't want). Also, I don't know that these foods won't also require nitrates, preservatives or carry bacteria, etc. that I'm doing fine avoiding right now. There's also the idea of digesting something that is really not optimum for my system… I've grown fond of the way my body works as vegan. I don't know that I'd risk it for a whimsical change without good "reason" to do so…

    And finally, the idea of "meat" or "flesh" is so deeply tied to what I consider a despicable practice that I'd reject it on this premiss alone. For me anyway, none of it would seem right.

    February 13, 2009
  15. Sammy #

    I am not an academic but I thought Susan Turner's article was very thorough and intelligent. Thanks for pointing it out, Angus. I also thought Dan's rebuttal about faux meat above was right on.

    I wonder whether if the faux meat thing were to become the norm, whether "the real thing" would gain a special allure.

    February 15, 2009

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