Lab-Grown Meat: The Answer to Animal Cruelty and Environmental Ruin From Feedlots?
A philosophy paper recently published in Neuroethics presents the current state of biotech research on the use of genetic engineering to eliminate pain in animals.
Author Adam Shriver, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that it's our moral obligation to use such technology to reduce the suffering of animals on factory farms.
"If we can't do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimize the amount of suffering that is caused," he told New Scientist recently.
Shriver, a vegetarian, says his personal preference would be that nobody eat meat and that factory farms had no reason to exist. But given the demand for meat, he assumes factory farms are here to stay and sees pain-free meat (meat from animals genetically engineered to not feel pain) as a compromise that would at least reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
Shriver isn't the only one in the ivory tower thinking about pain-free meat. The problem with their argument, and the reason it's unlikely to advance beyond an intellectual exercise, is that factory-farmed meat is problematic in so many ways aside form suffering, and knocking out certain "pain genes" would further encourage and enable a horrible practice.
When I was 5 years old, I wrote a letter to President Carter, asking him to stop people from killing animals for meat. I probably wouldn't have felt so strongly if my parents had said, "don't worry honey, the animals don't feel pain."
By numbing animals, we'd be numbing ourselves to the ills of factory farming, which we should be anything but numb to. Nearly one-fifth of global carbon emissions come from factory farms -- more than the combined emissions of the world's transport activities, including cars, planes, trucks, trains and boats.
Factory farms use and pollute incredible amounts of water, degrading hundreds of rivers and killing millions of fish, and help create a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts.
Slaughterhouse suffering isn't limited to the animals that die there. Uncomfortable and unhealthy working conditions, repetitive-stress injuries and the occasional major trauma are the norm for slaughterhouse workers -- who are often exploited, undocumented and poorly paid immigrants whose status helps keep them from unionizing for better conditions.
Those who eat factory-farm products can be victimized, too, by meat contaminated with bacteria and pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. Factory-meat victims also include the many people who go hungry because land that could have been used to grow food for people is used to grow food for animals. With the world's meat consumption expected to double in the next 40 years, such problems are likely to increase.
Few issues divide the human diet more than the eating of animal flesh. While some argue that meat-eating played an integral part in the evolution of our minds and bodies, others believe it's completely unnecessary -- and both sides may have a point.
While Shriver's plan falls short of addressing all the problems associated with factory farms, his assessment of the forces that create factory farms is realistic. It probably is a given that cheap meat will be consumed. The question remains: How will it be produced?
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has put its money on the prospect of death-free, animal-free meat. The animal-rights group has a standing offer of $1 million to the first person or company to come up with a safe, affordable and commercially marketable process to create meat without raising or killing animals.
PETA's interests are aligned with a growing network of scientists. The In-Vitro Meat Consortium is an international alliance of environmentally concerned scientists collaborating to facilitate the establishment of large-scale carne-culture.
While the group has gained momentum and believers, the goal of lab-grown meat that's affordable enough to compete with factory farms is still five to 10 years off, according to Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a U.S. nonprofit that channels funding to animal-free meat research.
The science behind this young field is borrowed partly from medical research into tissue regrowth. The idea is to take cells from tasty farm animals that are stimulated and fed so they grow into edible masses of muscle meat that vaguely resemble animal tissue -- perfect for nuggets or burgers.
New Harvest commissioned a recent Oxford University study to estimate the environmental impact of lab-grown meat. The study found that replacing factory farms with meat labs would create 80 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, use 90 percent less land and water, and be cost-comparable.
Many slow-food/small-farm types are calling foul at the prospect of further distancing the eater from the source of his or her food. And they're right. I personally wouldn't want to eat it. But while meat labs seem vaguely disturbing, factory farms are completely disgusting.
Some argue that cultured meat is unnatural. But neither is it natural that chickens are bred to grow so fast their legs snap under their own weight. Nor is it natural when cattle are overbred to the point that they can't even safely have sex and must rely on artificial insemination to procreate.
Some farmers and agriculture experts are convinced that small farms could feed the world all the meat it needs. This may be so, depending on how we define "need." If small farmers really think they can quench the world's thirst for blood, they have a five- to 10-year window in which to make their case.
One of the biggest obstacles to cultured meat is the development of a suitable growth medium, which is a soup of salts, sugars, amino acids and vitamins. Medical-tissue cultures use animal-derived sources, like blood, but using animal fluids would defeat the purpose for meat production. Matheny says the most promising source of growth media is algae, but making the production process cost effective will take time.
If and when that time comes, and lab-grown meat begins filling the processed-food troughs of the masses, the question becomes: Will the Oscar Mayer wiener-eaters of the world even notice?
If not, and if it can be made safely, and if the environmental benefits turn out to be true, I say let them eat from the meatri dish!
I won't be joining them, though, just as I don't join them at the troughs where factory-farmed mystery meat is served.