The idea of growing meat in laboratory conditions has been around for some time. In 1932, Winston Churchill remarked ‘50 years hence…[we] shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium’ and the idea has been developed by generations of science fiction writers, most recently Margaret Atwood, whose bio-engineered Chickie Nobs, in her novel Oryx and Crake, have eight breasts and no brains.
Recently there has been a spurt of research in this direction, initiated in 2001 by NASA, in an experiment designed to produce a source of fresh meat for space flights. Scientists chopped chunks of muscle about five to ten centimetres long from living goldfish, and immersed them in a vat of foetal bovine serum extracted from the blood of unborn cows. Within a week the chunks had grown 14 per cent in size. The NASA researchers claimed that their achievement held out the prospect of growing meat in industrial quantities from the muscle cell lines of various animals or fish. The gruesome method employed did not prevent project leader Morris Benjaminson claiming that ‘this could save you having to slaughter animals for food’.
In the years since then, lab-grown meat has shown signs of becoming a sunrise industry. The technology is similar to the stem cell techniques that have resulted in the growing of organs, such as human windpipes, outside the human body, under laboratory conditions. In June 2005 the magazine Tissue Engineering published what it claimed was ‘the first peer-reviewed discussion of the prospects for industrial production of cultured meat.’ Two methods were described: growing cells either as flat sheets on thin membranes, or growing them on small three-dimensional beads. The challenge, said one of the authors Jason Matheny, who works with Benjaminson on a project called New Harvest, ‘is getting the texture right. We have to figure out how to ‘exercise’ the muscle cells. For the right texture you have to stretch the tissue, like a live animal would.’ However, once the difficulties are ironed out, he claims, ‘cultured meat could appeal to people concerned about food safety, the environment and animal welfare’.
The scientists working on lab-grown meat can recognize an expanding market when they see one and the vegan/vegetarian market is tailored for their needs. Artificial meat, made, not from animal tissue, but from spun soya protein, has been around for several decades, and this in turn is a descendant of the ‘nut cutlets’ which gave vegetarians in the middle years of the 20th century the opportunity to sink their teeth into something at least analogous to flesh. Leafu (a paste extracted from inedible grasses or other plants), soya milk and soft margarine are all to a greater or lesser degree part of the same tendency. Processed protein and fat is a staple part of a great many vegans’ diets. At a time when the organic sector of the green movement is campaigning for slow food, real meat and fresh local produce, the vegan/vegetarian camp has been nudging the industry in the very opposite direction: towards factory farming and factory food. Cultured muscle tissue is the dream product that lies at the end of this road.
The secret longing of some vegans for Chickie Nobs came out into the open in 2008 when Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered a $1 million prize to whoever can scale up stem cell techniques to grow edible animal tissue for a mass market. The New York Times reported ‘near civil war’ within PETA, with members leaving in protest. Jim Thomas, of the ETC group, picked up on the licentiousness inherent in allowing vegans to eat synthetic meat: ‘Culturing exotic meats opens new markets: Anyone for lion? A panda burger? What about ethical human cannibalism?’
But when PETA issued its challenge, veteran animal rights philosopher Peter Singer was not slow to voice his support:
"I always thought it would be a good thing, the same way that I think it’s good that the abuse of horses for pulling loads has ended. … I think it would be good if the abuse of animals for raising them for meat were to end, because we had a technological solution to that. We had an alternative."
Singer’s support for lab-cultured meat is a logical extension of his vegan philosophy, which he states is based entirely on ‘the principle of minimizing suffering’. It is from this basic principle that he arrives at his definition and denunciation of speciesism:
"Just as human beings are speciesists in their readiness to cause pain to animals when they would not cause a similar pain to humans for the same reason, so most human beings are speciesist in their readiness to kill other animals when they would not kill human beings."
However, this philosophy was put to a closer test in 2009 when an academic philosopher from the USA, Adam Shriver, proposed the genetic engineering of ‘pain-free’ meat - an innovation that suggests that we could more easily engineer something like Chicki Nobs by dumbing down the live chicken, rather than building them up from cultured meat. Whereas Descartes postulated that animals were ‘automata’ who couldn’t feel pain, in order to justify eating and mistreating them, Shriver proposes to manufacture automata for the same purpose. In an article published in the journal Neuroethics, he wrote:
"Though the vegetarian movement sparked by Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation has achieved some success, there is more animal suffering caused today due to factory farming than there was when the book was originally written … We may be very close to, if not already at, the point where we can genetically engineer factory-farmed livestock with a reduced or completely eliminated capacity to suffer. In as much as animal suffering is the principal concern that motivates the animal welfare movement, this development should be of central interest to its adherents."
It seems that Shriver, a lifelong vegetarian, is serious and not just aiming to put Peter Singer on the spot, though that is what he does by steering Singer’s ship so close to the rocks of carnivory. Since the ability to suffer is the crux of Singer’s argument against killing animals, the factory farming of brain-dead chickens or pigs ought to be morally acceptable. But by the same token, unless you are a speciesist, the factory farming of brain-dead humans would be equally acceptable. Anyone for ethical cannibalism?
Extracted from Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie. Available in print with a 25% discount (p&p free in the UK) or as an eBook from Green Shopping.
'Fish Fillets Grow in Tank', from the New Scientist.
Paper Says Edible Meat Can be Grown in a Lab on Industrial Scale, University of Maryland Newsdesk, July 6, 2005.
‘Flask Grown Flesh’, The Ecologist by Jim Thomas, July/Aug 2008.
Lab-Grown Meat a Reality, But Who Will Eat It? by Ketzel Levine for National Public Radio, 20 May 2008.
Singer, P (1975), Chapter 1 in Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, Pimlico, 1995.