Rearing meat in a petri dish: Ethical implications of in vitro meat production
by Enakshi Sivasudhan
On 5th August 2013, a simple pan-fried hamburger alongside tomato, lettuce and a bun was served to three diners amidst a crowd of gathered journalists somewhere in London. The hamburger was not a creation by a world-class chef or, by any account, a revelatory gastronomic experience. However, that day came down in history for the world’s first public demonstration of an edible in vitro meat product produced by Dr. Mark Post and his team from Maastricht University .
The traditional method of meat production involves raising animals and housing them in confined spaces, feeding them until they attain a certain size and then slaughtering them in order to produce meat products for consumption . Laboratory-grown meat, however, involves extracting animal stem cells, thereby combining tissue engineering techniques and 3D printing while using animal sources only in the initial biopsy . The idea of producing in vitro meat has sparked debate about its ethical implications over the years. However, this article concentrates on some of the positive implications of in vitro meat production, while addressing the impact of this potential game changing technology from an ethical point of view.
In recent years the need for alternatives for conventional meat production through livestock has been generally based on concerns about environmental issues, sustainability and animal welfare. These concerns have been further intensified by the rapid increase in meat consumption . Conventional meat production and animal husbandry could lead to large emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as well as deforestation to gain land for livestock farming. According to Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) large-scale production of in vitro meat will reduce energy usage by 45%, land use by 99%, greenhouse gas emission by 96% and water usage by 96%, compared to the conventional method of meat productiona. This would allow more land areas to be conserved, providing more space for the survival of wild animals and plants, while ensuring the production of ample meat to feed an increasing world population . According to New Harvest, a non-profit organisation at the forefront of laboratory-grown meat, this is a possibility because in theory a single stem cell is capable of producing enough meat to feed the entire global population for a year .
a According to Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) large-scale production of in vitro meat will reduce energy usage by 45%, land use by 99%, greenhouse gas emission by 96% and water usage by 96%, compared to the conventional method of meat production.
Another motivation for considering in vitro meat consumption is the ethical issues revolving around animal welfare. An Australian philosopher Peter Singer stated that, “I haven’t consumed meat in 40 years, however if in vitro meat were to be commercially available, I would be pleased to try it” . People, especially vegetarians and vegans, who believe that slaughtering animals for food consumption purposes is immoral, are often revolted by the way animals are treated in factory farms. It goes without saying that substituting conventional meat production with in vitro meat consumption would eliminate the suffering of farm animals, without having to give up on meat altogether. In other words, one can address the ethical issues regarding animal welfare raised by defenders of vegetarianism, without actually adopting vegetarianism . Furthermore, production routines that treat living animals as inanimate capitalistic commodities by forcing them to live in confined spaces and be overfed, could be avoided by switching to an in vitro meat diet . It is believed that, this ‘carniculture’ would be the solution to animal cruelty and potential abolishment of livestock farming.
Recent studies have shown that in vitro meat is in fact healthier and more nutritious than the conventionally produced meat. This is because lab-grown meat can be modified to be enriched with ‘good’ fats such as omega-3 and omega-6, while saturated fats can be removed. This could ultimately reduce health issues associated with conventional meat consumption, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and even cancer . Also, since in vitro meat production through stem cell culture is strongly monitored under sterile laboratory conditions, food borne diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Campylobacter and Salmonella infections could be avoided .
When it comes to in vitro meat production techniques, philosophers and ethicists often raise the question: “Is it natural?” Public scepticism may be skewed by lack of knowledge, and currently there is very little knowledge about in vitro meat products as a consumer product . In my personal opinion, in vitro can be considered as natural because it is produced from real stem cells extracted from animals and even the medium in which they are grown is supplemented with fetal bovine serum. Despite the fact that fetal bovine serum is costly and still requires the slaughter of the animal since it is animal derived, the severity of animal cruelty is significantly lesser than the conventional method. Some critics may argue that it is not natural because the procedure is carried out under intensive laboratory conditions, however it can be argued that even in the conventional meat production, the animals are grown under artificial conditions and injected with artificial growth hormones, such as in the case of broiler chicken .
Currently the process of lab-grown meat is quite expensive; however scientists are hoping to produce it as an affordable consumer product in the near future. The cost of production will be lower as the costs for feeding animals, transportation and manufacturing will be avoided, automatically reducing the final price, and allowing for underdeveloped and developing countries to have access to a high protein diet. In addition, the animal waste created by throwing away inedible animal parts such as skin and bone, will be avoided as only the edible parts will be grown in the lab .
In 1932, Winston Churchill, a British politician, once said, “In 50 years we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the wing or the breast, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” . Innovative technology developments are thought to obfuscate democratic decision-making and are also often met with ethical suspicion . It is true that new technology may sometimes create moral issues; however they may also solve old moral issues. Perhaps humankind has progressed from hunting down animals, to rearing them for slaughter, to finally reaching a third era of in vitro meat production. I strongly feel that when in vitro meat becomes available in the future, it will benefit animals the environment and humankind, as it will allow us to choose it over conventionally produced meat. Furthermore, the public should be educated to have a broad understanding and appreciate the positive implications of in vitro meat production, so that we can effectively tackle the global food crisis while enacting consumption of an animal cruelty-free diet.
About the Author
Enakshi Sivasudhan is a Sri Lankan who graduated from The University of Nottingham with a Bachelor in Biotechnology with Honours. She previously worked as a Research Trainee at Applied Agricultural Resources in Malaysia and is currently working in Sri Lanka. Her research interests include Bioinformatics and Synthetic Biology and she hopes to pursue a career as a Research Scientist. She loves to indulge herself in studying the ethical consideration of scientific research. Her favourite things about Malaysia are Nasi Lemak and Pasar Malam. Find out more about Enakshi by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile: http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/enakshilklk/
This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11. Check out other articles in Issue 11 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11 (PDF version)
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