Morality changes, and we shake our heads in disbelief at the conditions that Western society tolerated just a century or two ago—slavery, child labor, mental hospitals as warehouses, voting for white men only, and so on. But let’s not pretend that we’ve now got it all figured out. A century in our future, society might look back on our world in disbelief at the moral errors (from their standpoint) that we found acceptable. Raising animals and then killing and eating them may be one of these moral errors.
There is a solution: cultured meat.
The moral issue
How many of us know someone who studied where meat comes from or took a tour of a slaughterhouse and became a vegetarian as a result? Some cows, chickens, and pigs live fairly natural lives before they are killed for meat, but millions don’t.
I eat meat. What’s my moral excuse? If pressed, I’d argue with a combination of “I enjoy eating meat” and “Yeah, but everyone else is doing it.” There is a health benefit—getting the right amino acid mix is easy from meat, but from plants it requires some effort—but that is easily resolved. By eating meat, I’m taking the easy route, but I don’t have much of a moral defense.
Five years ago, I listened to a Sam Harris interview with Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats, one of the first companies working on cultured meat. I’ll review that interview and summarize what’s happened since.
The environmental issues
The magnitude of the environmental problem is as shocking as the moral one.
- Land use. Pastureland (land used for open grazing as well as that used to raise crops for livestock) is one quarter of the earth’s land area (Annenberg). “Only about 20 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used to produce food that is eaten directly by people, while about four times as much is used to feed livestock” (Union of Concerned Scientists). Cultured meat may use 98% less land.
- Greenhouse gases. Cows produce a lot of methane. The agriculture contribution to worldwide greenhouse gases is 15% (UN FAO). Cultured meat may reduce that by 95%.
- Deforestation. The need for more pastureland is a major driver of deforestation (Union of Concerned Scientists).
- Water use. “The consumption of animal products contributes to more than one-quarter of the water footprint of humanity.” Source
- The environmental impact of beef is especially large: “Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world. Beef makes up 24% of the world’s meat consumption, yet requires 30 million square kilometres of land to produce. In contrast, poultry accounts for 34% of global meat consumption and pork accounts for 40%. Poultry and pork production each use less than two million square kilometres of land.” Source
These problems also touch on political tensions caused by scarce fresh water and climate change. There’s also the energy used and the pollution caused by raising livestock.
Could cultured meat be the answer?
A 2013 article titled, “A quarter-million pounder and fries” documented the taste test of a €250,000 hamburger, the first made from cultured beef. We have a long way to go, but, as Sam Harris noted, the cost to sequence a human genome is now around $1000, while the first one, sequenced in 2003, cost $3 billion. There is room for optimism.
Valeti of Memphis Meats cites the problems with the status quo, both moral and environmental, as the motivation for cultured meat.
- No antibiotics would be needed with cultured meat (70% of antibiotics used in the U.S. today are for livestock).
- The amount and kind of fat in cultured meat can be tuned.
- There are more than 2 million illnesses every year from eating meat and poultry in the U.S.
- Eliminating animal breeders would reduce the likelihood of pandemics.
- Prion disease such as BSE (mad cow disease) would be eliminated.
- The cultured process is more efficient. It now takes 23 calories to make 1 calorie of beef, while Valeti’s process should require just 3 calories.
How will the public respond?
Harris said that his own informal Twitter poll reported that, while most people would switch if the cost and taste were identical to conventional meat, the creepiness factor was a problem to some. I suppose they imagine peacefully grazing cows tenderly managed by hay-chewing cowboys on horseback replaced by bubbling vats of chemicals monitored by white-coated technicians. So they’re grossed out by vats but okay with a slaughterhouse?
“Natural” as a trait of food is in vogue, and there will be pushback against cultured meat. But how natural is our food today? Jason Matheny, a director of a nonprofit that funds research on cultured meat, said:
Cultured meat isn’t natural, but neither is yogurt. And neither, for that matter, is most of the meat we eat. Cramming 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and dosing them full of antibiotics isn’t natural. I view cultured meat like hydroponic vegetables. The end product is the same, but the process used to make it is different. Consumers accept hydroponic vegetables. Would they accept hydroponic meat?
We’re not there yet
We must hold off on the celebrations. Hamburgers and sausage may happen soon, but complex structures like steak will take longer. A technology maxim that we often forget is that you can’t schedule a breakthrough. And the politically powerful ranching industry might put up regulatory roadblocks to defend the status quo.
The switch to a diet with meat has been credited with changing our genus and permitting our large human brain. Maybe we’ll soon be able to eat that diet with a clear conscience.
the thought of slaughtering animals for meat
will be laughable.
— Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/11/16.)