Cultured meat, or meat grown from cells in a petri dish, has been the dream of science fiction authors, futurist vegans, and other visionaries for years. Earlier this month that dream appeared to take one step close to becoming reality when nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald participated in the very first public taste test of cultured meat made by Dr. Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University. Their review of the burger appeared to be mainly positive, though they noted that it was lacking in fat. The event was widely covered in the media and generated a lot of discussion across the internet, especially among vegans and science bloggers.
Many reacted with enthusiasm including the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, in their latest episode. However not everyone was as excited. Another skeptical blogger, Dr. Ricky, makes some good points in their response to the panel,
First problem: the Skeptics actually used the term “peak meat” – that there’s an impending shortage of meat due to increasing demand, echoing the talking point that cultured beef technology solves a food security problem. Meat is a dispensable part of the human diet, can come from multiple sources, and beef itself is a luxury meat. Most of the world does not consume beef regularly because of cost. It has a lower cultural impact that you would expect on a global scale – unless you’re viewing it from a privileged First Worlder point of view.
I would add that along with the dispensability of meat in the human diet, there already exist a wide variety of nutritious meat alternatives of many different types. Some of which are indistinguishable from the real thing. With great alternatives already on the market why not focus on vegan advocacy to build further demand and access?
And just how ethical is the current incarnation of cultured meat? Most people are aware that the necessary starter cells must be gathered from an animal. Though this can be done today using a relativity harmless biopsy, it still presents some ethical problems. Unless the cell lines can be made immortal it would still necessitates the ongoing use of animals as Dr. Post explains,
Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells form there.
Dr. Diana Fleischman points out the even larger issue of Fetal Bovine Serum in her piece on the Sentientist blog,
in vitro cells are grown on a substrate called “Fetal Bovine Serum” (FBS) (as detailed in this fact sheet from Maastricht University). Here is an excerpt from an article, “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?”. Keep in mind that the description here is derived from less than 4% of FBS harvesters that supplied technical information to the authors.
The bovine fetuses from which blood is drawn for (commercial) FBS production are obtained from pregnant cows which are sent to slaughter for reasons such as crippling lameness, or when slaughtering herds of extensively kept beef cattle…Fetuses should be at least 3 months old; otherwise the heart is too small for puncture…Bovine fetal blood is commonly harvested by cardiac puncture…At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow). The reproductive tract is removed from the carcass…The calf is removed quickly from the uterus and the umbilical cord is tied off….A cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube. In the absence of a vacuum pump, fetal blood may be obtained by means of gravity or massage.
The article goes on to explore whether or not the fetus can feel pain but the calf’s mother who is eviscerated certainly can and thus it’s a huge stretch to say something that involves slaughter and evisceration is “cruelty free”.
For ethical vegans in particular this is a huge stumbling block. Dr. Ricky explains further,
The efficiency [of FBS] is far from ideal as well – it takes a lot of fetuses worth of serum to grow a single patty of “cultured beef”. In a weird sense, we are killing cattle to feed the “cruelty free” cultured beef. Media coverage is quick to handwave this requirement away as some small technical glitch that will be solved eventually, replacing FBS with a sustainable, non animal destroying substitute. This does not exist, and the quest to make a synthetic replacement for FBS has been going on for decades – and we are nowhere near an acceptable solution.
Fetal Bovine Serum is not just an issue for cultured meat but for many types of science including vaccine production and other research. Perhaps PETA would do better by offering that million dollars for a suitable serum replacement first. I personally feel that our resources are better spent in improving and promoting the awesome alternatives to meat that already exist. It’s not that I think cultured meat it is a horrible idea in itself, just that I really don’t see it being a realistic alternative anytime soon.
So is this really something to get excited about? Is it worth expending significant resources on? From my perspective not really. This project, while scientifically interesting, still involves a good deal of entirely unnecessary suffering and exploitation. Even if this project were entirely free of animal use there is still the issue of cost and scalability. Currently cultured meat is no where near a marketable price (at £200,000 a burger) and the process is far from being resource efficient. Even the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Mark Post, has said, “Vegetarians should remain vegetarian. That’s even better for the environment.” Perhaps future advances will be able to address these issues, but for now we shouldn’t hold our breath. In reality there is no need to wait to address the issues purported to be addressed by cultured meat. By going vegan you can begin to help animals and reduce the impact of meat production now, not in some hypothetical future.
Will in vitro meat become cruelty free? on The Sentientist
Lab Meat on The Vegan Option podcast
Vat Meat on The Vegan Scientist
Why Lab-Grown Meat is the Future of Food by Ingrid Newkirk
The Future of Food, Why Lab Grown Meat is Not the Solution by Jasmijn de Boo