Producing and commercializing cultured meat — meat produced by in-vitro cultivation of animal cells — is one of today’s most hyped scientific and technological challenges.
Dozens of startups around the world, generously backed by VC funding, are competing to hit the market with the Holy Grail of the food industry: meat produced without slaughtering animals.
But the quest to actualize lab-grown meat isn’t just opening up unprecedented technological possibilities. It’s also posing new moral conundrums and cultural challenges.
Should vegans embrace cultured meat? Will meat grown in the lab alienate us from nature even more? Is it cannibalism if we eat lab-grown human meat? And could lab-grown meat at one point become something entirely different from traditional meat?
To address these issues, I reached out to Dr. Cor van der Weele, who is a professor of humanistic philosophy at the University of Wageningen, sort of the Oxford of food innovation.
I asked Professor van der Weele — who also spoke at our event on the Future of Meat we organized at TQ — to help me untangle a few of the possible moral and cultural implications of cultured meat.
New moral identities
First off, Professor van der Weele highlights how several studies found that many meat eaters share concerns about meat and factory farming with vegetarians and vegans.
Despite their shared concerns, however, meat eaters have different ways to cope with these moral qualms. According to Professor van der Weele, many studies, for example in the field of consumer research, associate lack of behavior change with indifference while she thinks that this attitude would often be better described as “strategic ignorance”.
In a paper she co-authored with social psychologist Marleen C. Onwezen, Dr. Cor van der Weele argues that many consumers who were previously labeled as “indifferent” to the moral implications of eating meat do care about the issue but decide, consciously or unconsciously, to strategically ignore it in order to avoid conflicting moral tensions.
For them, cultured meat might represent a new moral opportunity and the possibility to form a new moral identity.
A renewed relationship with nature
Unnaturalness is a theme that often comes up when people start to think about cultured meat. For some critics, it is an important objection.
Author and micro-farmer Simon Fairlie, for example, argues in his 2010 book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” for organic food and a reduction of meat consumption but writes off cultured meat as a continuation of factory-produced protein that, converging with genetic engineering, will lead to further estrangement from nature for humans.
However, Professor van der Weele suggests that growing meat in a lab might actually improve our relationship with animals and nature. After all, what’s more unnatural and alienating than intensive animal farming?
In a study conducted with Clemens Driessen, one scenario that emerged from one of the focus groups was called “the pig in the yard.” In this scenario, cultured meat is made in small local factories using cells from animals kept in small yards. This speculative production process, which combines cutting-edge technologies and old traditions, led to enthusiasm among the participants in the focus group, also among the ones who previously were ambivalent about cultured meat and expressed doubts about its unnaturalness.
Significantly, they also often deemed this scenario “too good to be true.” And, as Professor van der Weele notes, they might well be right.
After all, it’s easy to imagine that, if meat grown in a lab is ever to become successful, it will most likely be thanks to large companies able to scale the technology and disrupt the meat industry.
But is that the only option? What can be the role of farmers and their cultural heritage in this new meat industry 2.0?
Far from leaving them to their destiny, Professor van der Weele is undertaking a new research endeavor to try and understand their experience as they see their industry being disrupted. Might it perhaps be an opportunity for them, instead of merely a threat?
And that’s why, on a side note, van der Weele doesn’t particularly like the term “clean meat”, used by large institutions like The Good Food Institute to describe cultured meat. “It’s unnecessarily insulting towards farmers,” she explains.
The meat of Theseus
“The Ship of Theseus” is an ancient thought-experiment that goes like this: “Suppose that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in battle has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece. As the years go by, some parts are replaced because they begin to rot. After a century, all the parts have been replaced. Is the restored ship still the same object as the original?”
I was reminded of this paradox when Professor van der Weele highlighted that “the assumption that meat alternatives need to resemble meat has an uncertain future.”
At first, I was a bit skeptical: isn’t the main point of meat alternatives (both plant-based and lab-grown) to be just like meat, the same way the ship of Theseus’ custodians wanted to preserve its identity?
But in one of her papers, Professor van der Weele raises some relevant points: “When meat-like products are no longer associated with raising and slaughtering animals,” she writes, “will they continue to be compared to meat? May resemblance to meat become a weakness for people who don’t want to be reminded of their old meat-eating habits?”
We started replacing parts of the meat industry because they were rotting with the aim of preserving “the original object”, meat. But maybe, one day, we’ll realize that with them we can create something entirely new, not yet imaginable. As if the custodians of the ship of Theseus found out how to make a plane out of the ship.
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