On Monday, Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the world’s most expensive burger in front of a live audience in London, and via webcam, around the world. The patty, made from cow cells cultured in a petri dish, was the result of 2 years of research and over $325,000, funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Dr. Post and Mr. Brin see lab-made meat as the solution to the looming problem of global food shortage.
“People might think this is a crazy way to produce meat. But it’s inevitable. Because the way we produce meat right now from livestock is not sustainable. It is not good for the environment, it is not good for animals,” Dr. Post said in an interview with BBC. Indeed, livestock farming uses a staggering amount of earth’s resources, including 30% of land not covered by ice. 70% of earth’s agricultural land is devoted to animal feed. Livestock farming also contributes 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. All of these facts lead to the logical conclusion that current meat production is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. And in-vitro meat production, in theory, sounds like it could be free of any moral quandaries regarding consumption of other sentient and intelligent beings.
But while in-vitro meat is being touted as guilt-free by certain media, the moral ambiguity still remains for anyone concerned with the ethics of animal consumption. As of yet, in-vitro meat comes from dead animals: as The New York Times rightly notes, the patty shown on Monday came from the cow shoulder muscles from a slaughterhouse, and not from “a harmless biopsy from living cows,” as some overly optimistic news media gushed (I’m looking at you, RT). The truth is, the stem cells for in-vitro meat will continue to come from dead animals indefinitely, since this is the cheapest and most economically sensible source. And even when mass in-vitro meat production becomes a reality, there will always be a two-fold meat industry because some people will always be able to afford “real” meat, no matter how high the cost (for some reason, I have a hard time believing Sergey Brin will switch to eating in-vitro meat because he believes it is better for the environment). As a result, there will be livestock farming and slaughter for the rich, and production of in-vitro meat grown from the cells of slaughtered animals, for the majority of the population. This can hardly be seen as utopia for animals–or for humans, for that matter.
Yes, Dr. Post is right in that we must act quickly to move away from livestock farming. But contrary to his claim, large-scale in-vitro meat production is not “inevitable,” and it certainly isn’t the ideal solution to world hunger. The most direct solution to the problem of livestock farming and food shortage is already here, and it’s the adoption of vegan lifestyle (full or partial) by a substantial part of the population. Even Dr. Post concedes that “vegetarians should remain vegetarian. That’s even better for the environment.” At least a decade or two of expensive research would be required before in-vitro meat production becomes commercially viable, but veganism is a readily available option for anyone, right here and now.
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