Is lab-grown meat going to be an ethical alternative?

Shall we get a chicken for Sunday?

Something that always amazes me is the price of a large chicken in a supermarket. Only three pounds!

Think about it this way… that chicken has been hatched, then sheltered, fed, and watered for a long enough period for it to grow to that size. It has then been slaughtered, plucked, and sterilised at a slaughterhouse. After that, it is packaged and transported to a supermarket that could be hundreds of miles away. All that time and process, yet someone is still making a profit margin off three quid.

Of course, some animals live relatively full lives and are properly cared for before they are slaughtered. A joint of meat from a small farm that properly cares for its animals will be reflected in the price – and perhaps meat should be reassuringly expensive.

For plenty though, life is short and cruel. Factory farms can be overcrowded and dirty in an effort to keep costs down. They often have to be, for profits to be made on the vast quantities of meat they supply to a public who want it at an ever cheaper price.

Guilt-free burger?

Animal rights groups are largely in agreement that lab-grown meat is a positive thing in terms of ethics. The most obvious reason is that no animals are harmed or killed in the process, and the tissue created has no nervous system to experience pain.

Whilst it is true that animal cells are required to grow meat in a lab and that an animal must die to provide the fetal serum, it is simply not comparable to the slaughter of billions of livestock every year. A single animal cell can be used to create thousands of tons of meat in the lab. Some companies have developed vegan burgers from plant-only sources, but despite good reviews these probably wouldn’t convince many consumers who want a genuine meat replica.

The ethical argument should be enough to swing plenty of carnivores who are currently sat on the fence about reducing their meat intake or becoming vegetarian/vegan. A ‘guilt-free’ meat eating experience would certainly be a good selling point for many in the UK. It is worth remembering though that the meat-eating public in plenty of other countries and cultures do not feel as strongly about animal rights. An ‘ethical burger’ may be met with indifference in certain markets.

Meat Corp

One interesting ethical argument against cultured meat is that if it becomes popular, it could make it harder for farmers or local communities who rely on livestock cultivation. Some fear that cultured meat could mean an increasing reliance on global food corporations, in turn putting food production into the hands of the few. 

The livestock industry employs many people throughout the world, and there could be knock-on effects if their work can eventually be done faster, cheaper, and more ethically in a lab. It could be argued that this is an issue that many industries in the modern world will soon have to face though, with the true impact of AI and robotics yet to be felt.

Who makes the rules?

As lab-grown meat is a relatively recent development and some way off the mass market, there is little in the way of rules and regulations. A discussion will need to be held over the legalities of whether it can be called ‘meat’ as mainstream food corporations will inevitably try to push back and maintain their hold on the market.

Governments will need to decide on a set of uniform rules and regulations dictating how lab-grown meat can be produced and sold. If lab-grown meat does capture the public imagination, this is something governments and regulatory bodies will need to quickly pull together a coherent plan on.

Another major ethical consideration when it comes to lab-grown meat is the devastating impact out current methods of meat production have on the environment – something I’ll be discussing in my next blog.

This series is exploring questions about lab-grown meat. I’ve already talked about how healthy lab-grown meat is. All views expressed are my own.