The Ethics of Lab Grown Meat & Meat Substitutes

Story and Photos by Colin Thompson

Robots! Self-driving cars! Gene editing! 3D-printed organs! More and more, it seems like the future is now — what we once thought of as sci-fi fantasies are suddenly becoming possible. With scientific innovations hurtling us towards a society of advanced artificial intelligence, stem cells and all that other futuristic technology junk, it comes as no surprise that people have tried to apply these discoveries to the food that we eat. Raising sheep, cows and chickens for human consumption causes 14.5% of greenhouse emissions; many have looked to lab-grown meats and soy and pea-based substitutes in an effort to cull the environmental impacts of livestock cultivation.

How the heck do you make an entire patty out of an isolated cell, do you ask? By cultivating cells with high growth rates, of course! After isolating adult stem cells and myoblasts from animal test subjects, a protein is applied that allows for more extensive tissue growth. Cells are then placed in a culturing medium to provide energy, with edible scaffolding to promote three-dimensional growth.

While lab-cultured meats provide the world with a wealth of more sustainable alternatives to factory-farmed meat, I still have some concerns related to the cost, accessibility and ethics of growing meat in such a way. Schaefer and Savulescu, two Oxford ethicists, propose that the introduction of lab grown meats could lead to human cannibalism, which will definitely cause a few societal issues down the line. And why should we stop at chicken, beef and pork? If some people can straight-up eat foot tacos, there’s definitely a market out there for people who are curious about the flavor profile of human flesh.

Another point of concern apart from concerns around lab-replicated human flesh is the cost of these meat substitutes. One Israel-based company, Future Meat Technologies, is raring to get the price of their lab-grown burger patty down to $4.50 per pound from its current $363 per pound. As companies invest in more efficient methods to produce cultured meats, they will eventually be on par with traditionally cultivated meats. There is also the off-chance that lab-cultured meats will become an exclusive market, with only the rich being able to buy in.

Apart from the lab-cultured cells, there are a few other options. Beyond Meat has also produced a wide variety of meat substitutes using GMO-free pea protein, but instead of labeling their products as a meat substitute they have supermarkets place their products in the meat section in an effort to challenge the consumer’s idea of where they are able to get their dietary protein from. Complete with beet juice to color the protein like raw beef, this form of meat substitute is attempting to get as close as one can to the real deal. Impossible Foods’ eponymous Impossible Burger is made from yeast and soy leghemoglobin and provides an entirely plant-based option to the arena of meat substitutes. Although this erases concerns around animal ethics, the yeast used in the burger is genetically modified, opening a whole other can of worms for certain environmentalists. The cost of these plant patties catch a pretty penny, not to mention they aren’t all that healthy – one Beyond Burger alone has 5 grams of saturated fat, which is 25% of the recommended daily value for the average American diet. As someone personally conflicted about lab-cultured meats and the like, I really feel like we can’t win at this point.

So where do we go from here? Continued investment into cultured meat can lead to the end of traditional factory farming, effectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions and thus reallocating crops that had been initially grown for livestock to communities in need of food. However, I fear that this innovation will warrant further experimentation on animal subjects, which won’t go over well with animal rights activists and environmentalists. But are plant-based options really the best route? Are my neighbors from Houston hunkering to sink their teeth into some grilled pea protein, fresh off the grill? With many food cultures using meats and animal products as central elements since the beginning of time, my money is on no.

I’m not expecting any revolutionary changes in regards to meat consumption to happen immediately — but it is pretty fascinating to see how people are attempting to mitigate the damage caused by traditional factory farming and the livestock industry as a whole. Any way in which humans can minimize the damage done to the environment I am a fan of, even if that does bring cannibalism into the mainstream. That being said, until these products enter the market I’m cool with just sticking to some tofu.

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