In looking for an end to the pain and suffering of nonhuman animals in agriculture, In Vitro meat is often promoted as the most promising solution. In fact, the “father of animal liberation” himself, Peter Singer, applauds the recent effort to produce In Vitro meat: “My own view is that being a vegetarian or vegan is not an end in itself, …but a means towards reducing both human and animal suffering, and leaving a habitable planet to future generations. I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years, but if in vitro meat becomes commercially available, I will be pleased to try it” (Singer 2013).
So what is “In Vitro meat” exactly? In a nutshell, it is animal flesh that is grown through cloned and cultured cells/muscle tissue in a lab (Dr Mark Post from the University of Maastrichtis is identified as the “father of in vitro meat”). This seems harmless enough, right?
But assuming too quickly that In Vitro meat is the correct response to animal exploitation in agriculture is quite dangerous, since there are a number of questions we need to ask before unreflectively assuming that In Vitro meat itself is in line with the animal liberation movement. The first question we should entertain is the following: how are the cells obtained? The answer: from nonhuman animals. So then we might want to further ask: Where do these animals come from? Is the harvesting of cells done painlessly and without violating the physical integrity of nonhuman animals? What is done with the animals after we have “harvested” their cells? Unfortunately, too often are these questions not addressed in the many pro-In-Vitro articles that unquestioningly spout off praise for In Vitro meat.
Now, as someone who has researched both the positive and negative consequences of “Invitroism,” I have listed, to the best of my knowledge, the six best reasons (that are not by any means exhaustive) an animal ethicist has to refuse to support the In Vitro meat craze.
1. In Vitro meat does require frequent and repeated animal usage/suffering. Here are a couple of reasons why:
a. In order to produce in vitro meat, we need donor animals for the muscle cells. Animal cells do not just fall from the sky- but rather, nonhuman animals are brought into labs and scientists harvest cells from them. The first synthetic meat that was grown in a laboratory used the stem cells of a slaughtered cow. Professor Post stated that: “Eventually, my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals which you keep in stock in the world. You basically kill animals and take all the stem cells from them, so you would still need animals for this technology.”
*Also note, it is a common misconception that we only need to use a few animal cells to produce a large quanity of meat (the claim is that the cells will be multipled continuously to provide an enormous amount of meat). Yet contrary to this assumption, repeated biopsies are required to produce In Vitro meat because DNA gradually accumulates deleterious mutationswhen it is replicated.
b. In vitro cells are grown on a substrate called “Fetal Bovine Serum,” which is blood from bovine fetuses. And how is this serum obtained? By slaughtering a pregnant cow and removing the fetus (which must be at least 3 months) and performing a cardiac puncture, which involves “inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube” (Jochems et al 2002). Not only does this require the slaughter and evisceration of a pregnant cow, but it also might cause pain to the bovine fetus, which might be sentient depending on how old it is. Thus if we were to purchase In Vitro meat, we would essentially support the dairy industry.
2. In Vitro meat only promotes vegetarianism, and not veganism, so mass suffering will continue on factory farms in order to produce dairy and eggs. Keep in mind In Vitro meat offers only what is in the name: meat. This means that consumers will continue to support the dairy and egg industry, which is often more harmful than the beef industry.
3. The creation of In Vitro meat is not productive in changing the public’s attitudes toward nonhuman animals. Contrary to what Singer said in the above quote, the animal liberation movement is not restricted to the one goal of ending animal suffering and pain; rather, it is about liberating animals from the category of “objects” and respecting them as beings with value, which is independent from what sort of goods they can provide to us instrumentally. When we support the production of In Vitro meat, we perpetuate the idea that nonhuman animals are mere resources to be used for our benefit. As Francione writes, this sort of activity (consumption of animal flesh that does not directly contribute to animal pain and suffering) is “problematic as a symbolic matter.” As he puts it, such consumption would “reinforce the idea that animal products are things to consume; they reinforce the idea that animals are things, are human resources; they reinforce the social practice of consuming animals” (Francione 2012). Instead of wasting time promoting cruelty free meat, happy meat, benign carnivorism, synthetic meat, knockout animals, disenhanced animals, genetically programmed animals who die at an “early age, when their meat would taste best” (McMahan 2008), animal ethicists should focus their energy on encouraging individuals to respect nonhuman animals as individuals with their own value by advocating for veganism. Furthermore, we must come to understand that oppression and exploitation is inherently linked to the need to control the bodies and freedom of others. In Vitro meat is yet another way of controlling nonhuman animals– the process requires that we force them into a lab and extract their muscle cells against their will just so we can greedily indulge in animal flesh while feeling morally at ease. This, I’m sorry, does not describe animal liberation. Liberation requires the removal of human dominance and control over the nonhuman animal world–something which In Vitro meat production does not allow.
4. There is no reason why we should assume that the production of In Vitro meat will decrease the demand of factory farm meat. If omnivores refuse to eat veggie burgers, which taste very similar to meat, why do we expect that they will all of a sudden be willing to consume meat that comes from a lab? The concept of lab-grown meat is one that very well might be viewed as weird, odd, gross, etc. Also, initially, this sort of meat will be considerably more expensive than factory farm meat. If someone has been too selfish to give up factory farm meat, something tells me that they won’t be willing to spend an extra buck to eat “humane” In Vitro meat.
5. Experimenting with In Vitro meat is a waste of money,energy, time, and resources. Instead of trying to figure out the nicest way to exploit nonhuman animals, why don’t we use the money spent on this ludicrous research (It cost over $300,000 to produce the first batch of synthetic meat) on moral education that promotes veganism?
6. Supporting In Vitro meat entails that you support animal experimentation–even experiments that are done for the most trivial of reasons! Keep in mind that In Vitro meat is possible only because scientists have taken animals into labs, performed biopsies, and experimented on the cells of animals. Guess what that is? Trivial animal research: we don’t need In Vitro meat. or any meat for the matter, to remain in good health and/or survive— we have plenty of healthy vegan alternatives available.
So the next time you hear someone, even an influential animal ethicist, say something along the lines of the following: “The idea is simple: take some muscle tissue from a single cow and grow it in a nutrient solution. It will multiply and eventually we will have something that really is meat, cell for cell (Singer 2013),” we might ask him to consider what this nutrient solution is, the noted problem of replicating DNA, and all of the other moral issues associated with In Vitro meat in this article.
Francione, G. 2012. “Road Kill, Abandoned Eggs, and Dumpster Diving” Accessed August 2013. http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/road-kill-abandoned-eggs-and-dumpster-diving/
Jochems, C. E., Van Der Valk, J. B., Stafleu, F. R., & Baumans, V. 2012. “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?” ATLA-NOTTINGHAM, 30(2), pp. 219-228.
McMahan, J. 2008. “Eating Animals the Nice Way.” Dædalus (Winter 2008), pp. 66-76.
Singer, P. 2013. “The world’s first cruelty-free hamburger.” Accessed August 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/05/worlds-first-cruelty-free-hamburger