Synthetic Meat

One of the weirder food biotechnologies to make headlines in the last few years is ‘synthetic’ or ‘in vitro’ meat. Just as human skin cells are currently grown in laboratories in order to make skin grafts to treat burn victims, animal muscle cells can be grown in order to make pieces of meat for human consumption.

So far, no one has figured out how to produce synthetic meat in useful quantities, but many believe it’s just a matter of time. On one hand, the idea of lab-grown meat inspires a significant ‘yuck’ factor. But lab- or factory-grown meat may well be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than factory farming, and anyone concerned with animal welfare should like the idea of producing meat in a way that doesn’t involve cruelty to animals.

Here are some basic resources:

From NPR Health & Science, May 20, 2008: Lab-Grown Meat a Reality, But Who Will Eat It?

Countless families are familiar with the domestic challenge of vegetarians and meat eaters living under one roof. Vegetarians often find the mere presence of meat repugnant; meat eaters prefer their wings and ribs seasoned without guilt. But these days, as “mixed” households explore their dietary options, a handful of scientists are cooking up what might be a possible alternative: meat grown in a lab.

From Discover, July 12, 2006: Blinded By Science: The Way of All Flesh

“It would look,” says Dr. Vladimir Mironov, a cell biologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, “like a coffee machine. This is my dream.”
Yet here is the thing. The object of Dr. Mironov’s dreams may well look like a coffee machine, possibly even down to the satisfyingly hinged compartments and the Krups logo, but it will produce meat….

From The Business Ethics Blog, Sept 27 2008: PETA’s Prize for Artificial Meat

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has offered a $1 million prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices….”

And finally, from Wikipedia: In Vitro Meat.

Yuck factor aside, if anyone knows any good ethical concerns about synthetic meat, I’d be interested to hear them. (Obviously food safety is an issue, but not a unique or insurmountable one.)

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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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3 Responses to Synthetic Meat

  1. Bryan says:

    For starters it doesn’t eliminate the corporate meat industry, which many critics (such as Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry) have argued does us the injustice of distancing ourselves from the food we eat. They say the unintended consequences of this phenomenon have made us blind to not only our health, but the health of our communities and the environment. Would we become even more disconnected and uncaring if our meat comes from a disembodied creature?

  2. Chris MacDonald says:

    Michael:

    You’re right: by definition, a meat product can’t end the meat industry. But it would reduce the need for animal agriculture. And presumably it’s the existence of animal agriculture, and distancing consumers from *that*, that’s the problem, right?

    Chris.

  3. Adam Potthast says:

    Chris,

    My contribution got a little long to post here, so I took it over to my own blog. Apparently blogger doesn’t get trackbacks:

    < HREF="http://wr.freeminds.net/?p=272" REL="nofollow">Ethics of Synthetic Meat and Cannibalism<>

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