Monday, February 27, 2012

The ethics of artificial meat

A lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has just announced the successful use of stem cells to grow muscle artificially.  They took some stem cells from a cow, and grew them in tissue culture, and now have strips of muscle 2cm long, 1 cm wide and a mm thick.  It's currently very pale in appearance, but they will eventually add fat and blood to better mimic actual meat.  Getting it to taste like meat is a another matter, but the researchers believe it's possible. 

Why make artificial meat?  As the world population grows, the demand for meat grows as well, but raising meat the natural way is very costly, and is likely to only get more so.  Agriculture is in many ways a destructive enterprise -- as currently practiced it requires many tons of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and the diversion of much water, not to mention land, to produce what we eat.  And, no matter how you feel about killing animals to eat, the production of meat is particularly inefficient and wasteful -- 100g of vegetable protein yields only 15g of animal protein -- it's only 15% efficient.  Mark Post, the Dutch researcher whose lab is making the meat, believes that artificial meat can be 50% efficient.  It would also have less of an impact on natural resources.  And, the stem cells from just one cow (it's not clear from the reports whether the cow has to be killed for the stem cells to be harvested) can potentially feed millions.

From a humanitarian point of view, with artificial meat no cow needs to suffer feed-lot crowding and the kind of manipulation and minimal life that big herding often involves.  No fear, no line-up to the abattoir.  We presume that while muscle cells 'want' to live and stay alive, they do not have consciousness or sentient fear or suffering of the kind that whole animals with brains have.  So, regardless of efficiency considerations, this seems like a good use of science.

But then, one can ask, why make artificial meat when we can just not eat any meat at all?  That would be an even more truly efficient solution.  The demand for meat is rising especially rapidly in countries with a rapidly expanding middle class, such as India and China.  To expect them not to eat meat, when those of us in countries that have long been rich have been eating our fill for a long time, would just like expecting them to take equal responsibility for global warming, or to not destroy the rainforest when what they really need is land to plant vegetables.  Arrogant on our part.

Is this as proper use of technology, or should one resist it because it simply avoids facing up to the real global needs for food efficiency?  McDonald's will have their answers to these questions, but you as world citizens must have yours -- and express it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

never more arguing with vegans! hurray!