If you were watching television this week you may have seen this clip of a taste test for hamburger meat grown in a “test tube” in London discussed here. The meat was grown from stem cells from existing cows used to grow 20,000 strands of tissue. Costing more than $330,000 to make, with funding by google Co-Founder Sergey Brin, the day where this will be available at your grocery store or served at your fast food franchise is far away. But it may come sooner if we conclude that there may be a moral duty to develop and eat this kind of meat rather than animal-grown meat and press our governments to start funding this work. What is the morality of test tube meat consumption?
Sometimes narrative can be a way into ethics so consider this bit from one of my favorite novelists (and Canadian public intellectuals) Margaret Atwood from her novel Oryx and Crake. She imagines a dystopian future that includes the the consumption of “Chickie Knobs” in one scene:
“This is the latest,” said Crake.
What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.
“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.
“But there aren’t any heads…”
“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
To be clear the test tube meat unveiled earlier this week is not a Chickie Nob, it is grown from stem cells rather than being a cow with extra parts and brains missing (Atwood is silent on some characteristics of the Chickie Nob that may matter ethically such as whether it feels pain or is sentient), but I think many will react to the test tube meat the same way: disgust. Some in bioethics, like Leon Kass, think there can be a “Wisdom of Repugnance.” In my own work I have been a persistent skeptic on this theme. For me repugnance and disgust are good and should be cultivated as reactions for that which we deem immoral, but should be broken down and overcome for those things which we conclude are morally worth pursuing. Thus repugnance is a tool whose proper deployment depends on prior moral conclusions. In the case of test tube meat, whatever repugnance we feel is one we should get over and media, government, etc, should help us do so.
Why? Because as against consuming meat the way we do now (I put to one side how it compares to vegetarianism), if test tube meat were cheap and easy to cultivate they would be far morally superior to the current practice. The current practice of meat production, even when done as humanely as possible, causes pain to animals and requires the killing of sentient beings. The current practice does significant damage to the environment in terms of feed required for the animals we consume, grazing land, and the methane gas they produce that worsens global warming. Test tube meat may also obviate the need for antibiotic usage in animals that produce meat for consumption.
Are there concerns with test tube meat? Of course, safety being the most obvious one — though all current analyses suggest this meat was completely safe — and taste being the other — seems it is not as juicy as a good steak (yet!) But given the overwhelming benefits of shifting to this form of meat — for the animals, for ourselves, for future generations — a little juiciness is a small price to pay and there is every reason to believe that with more research we can achieve that juiciness (or even do better). Our governments should do everything possible to foster the development of this technology.
Of course a massive shift like this would have distributional consequences, especially for cattle farmers some of whom lobby intensely. However, it would be far better to develop this technology and ease these people off cattle ranching through pay-outs and the like if that is what is necessary to get this done.
Yesterday was an exciting day for the world, since we may be one step closer to a more moral form of meat consumption.