This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Last week I asked, “What do you think about meat grown in a lab? Would you eat it? Will your grandchildren?”
Matt expects a species-defining shift:
Evolutionary leaps in our development have been marked by the development of tools, farming, domesticated animals, and sadly and tragically, industrial farming and food processing. Lab-grown meat is the next evolution of our meat consumption as a species.
I.S. is excited.
“Heck yes, I’ll eat it!” she wrote. “If it tastes like the real deal and is safe, absolutely! I stopped eating factory-farmed meat two years ago, and I miss it so much! Especially bacon. Oh boy, do I miss bacon!”
Meredith believes the technology will be widely embraced:
I stopped eating meat after being profoundly moved by an article in The Atlantic about nonhuman species having consciousness (“A Journey Into the Animal Mind,” by Ross Andersen). Meat grown in a lab is, so far as I can tell, ethical and humane. It can be produced in a more sanitary environment and saves animals and meat-production workers from the horror of meat slaughter. That is likely to encourage skeptics to try it. Given the choice between cruelty and kindness, I believe most humans will choose kindness.
Ruth reminds us that some vegetarians won’t want to consume lab-grown meat:
Lab-grown meat is a wonderful idea if it can prevent billions of animals being brought into existence merely to be tortured and die. I would not eat it. I am a vegetarian and I do not like the taste and texture of flesh or of substances that try to imitate flesh. I’m sorry to find that many restaurants have replaced their veggie and bean burgers with the Beyond Burger that I find repulsive. However, all of these substitutes are great for people who like the taste and texture of flesh. I applaud it and hope it succeeds worldwide.
Victoria expects her own attitude to change:
Would I eat lab-grown meat?
Right now, I might, in the way I’ve eaten escargot: skeptically. I suspect there is something lost in the bland sameness of a petri dish, and nothing can capture the nuances of diet and environment that impact an animal’s growth. But I also expect it will become commonplace and I’ll eat it without a second thought, because anyone with the slightest conscience can see that flooding animals with hormones to get them to grow unnaturally large—while keeping them in tiny cages and filthy, crowded conditions—is cruel.
John is a skeptic:
My spidey senses are telling me this is much ado about nothing. I doubt that the human population of Earth can be supported by lab-grown meat. If it tastes like chicken and costs a similar price, yes, I would eat it. But generally, I think putting our food in the hands of engineers, chemists, and industrialists is a bad, if unavoidable, plan. I’ve always been jealous of my friend who feeds his family with wild harvested game. Just last night, I made dinner from fish I caught. I’d have to spend a lot more time outdoors to pull that off in my household, but I could do it. And animals would live their lives free and wild, not confined to cages barely bigger than their oversize, genetically engineered bodies. Factory farms are a moral catastrophe, but feeding this many people practically requires [them].
Lavina opposes lab-grown meat:
The promise of lab-grown meat rings hollow. It will lead to new problems. It ignores the concept that food is life and replaces the normal processing of food with fake, lab-created food.
Our food is not a commodity; it is not “stuff” put together mechanically and artificially in labs and factories. Fake meat ignores the diversity and cultural aspects of food. Its use of genetically modified ingredients to give it that “fake meat taste” will lead to disease and alter the gut biome. Why would we continue in this direction when diseases and poor health are at an all-time high? Instead of finding ways to improve our biodiversity and ecosystems by using regenerative farming techniques to improve climate change, the goal is to force people to consume fake meat and fake food products under the guise of [fighting] climate change regardless of local cultures, climates, and ecosystems. It is about control and profits. These fake foods are being promoted by billionaires who have no knowledge or consciousness of how food satisfies the soul and connects people.
I heard from several readers who believed that lab-grown meat was something billionaires wanted to foist on everyone else––and from many non-billionaire readers who are enthusiastic about lab-grown meat to spare animals or in hopes that it would be better for the planet.
J. doubts that nature can be improved upon:
Chickens are precisely optimized by evolution to make more chickens efficiently. Every part needed to make another chicken from cheap feed is right there. Growing chicken-muscle cells in an expensive, controlled artificial environment is destined to be inefficient by comparison. Using lab-grown meat won’t free up cropland used for animal feed; we will be increasing demand for the same foods, only now they will be fed to cells in the lab. It’s like charging an electric vehicle with a coal power plant, then claiming it’s a zero-emissions car. Anything can look green if you close your eyes tightly enough.
Zachary wants to hasten the arrival of lab-grown meat:
We need a Project Manhattan–level commitment toward getting the clean-meat industry past its growing pains and up to scale as soon as possible. This would solve a massive contributor to climate change. Most people will never become vegans. The world’s middle class is swelling, and with it, a demand to eat meat that the market will try to meet one way or another. A Project Meathattan is also politically palatable as it would demand no personal sacrifice from people. It’s a win-win for virtually everyone but the industrial livestock industry. I think once clean meat is at a competitive price point and taste, our culture’s attitude will flip like a switch overnight and it will become regarded as significantly more unethical to eat slaughtered meat. We will ask ourselves why we didn’t try to get this technology up to scale even sooner once we see it was possible.
Mark doesn’t want lab-grown meat forced on him:
People already eat highly processed food. This is usually not healthy. Artificial meat is another processed food. If people want to eat artificial meat, let them eat it. Just don’t create legislation that forces me to eat what you’ve decided is best for you. It’s not all-or-nothing. Not everyone has to eat the same thing. I’m going to keep eating what I have evolved to eat over the last million years. I’m going to continue to eat fresh vegetables, meat from chickens, cows, etc., and grains preferably grown in the United States.
MC anticipates a class divide:
Lab-grown meat is a trend most of us will participate in, perhaps unknowingly. Similarly to the GMO debate, I imagine a scenario where we’ll see restaurants priding themselves on being “lab-free.” The scalability of the industry seems likely to move lab-grown meat into fast food. Again, we will have another class demarcation. McDonald’s and Taco Bell will be able to fatten margins (as long as it scales) by replacing farm-grown meat with lab meat. Those on the lower echelons of society will be the mass market for “new meat.” Until it gets out of the Uncanny Valley, lab-grown meat will be a fad. But eventually it’ll be common. I don’t imagine future generations will care whether their Big Mac is real or not. Just if it tastes right. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone likes to see the sausage being made. Our industrial food complex feeds the world, and fewer people suffer due to technology. We have to improve, or the future will starve.
Mina can’t imagine killing animals if there is a real-meat alternative:
This is one of the most exciting discoveries man has made. I have always been a person who hates the idea of sentient creatures being slaughtered to please our tastes. Hypocritically, I have continued to eat meat after multiple attempts to stop. The substitutes at that time bore no resemblance to the real thing, by taste or texture. I couldn’t stand them.
I’m not sure if people can grasp what a game changer this would be for our planet. Between the environmental blessings of no more livestock destroying lands, water, and air with their living by-products, we can have a more respectful and peaceful approach to living creatures (which studies have shown leads to more positive feelings for others, both human and animals). No matter how hardened they might be to meat production, the workers in slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities have high rates of family dysfunction and substance abuse, and also live mostly poverty-stricken lives. Imagine the toll this would take on you, to kill these animals one after another while they scream and fight to get away … I’ve seen it up close, and it is a sight you never get over.
I can’t wait for the day when I can finally access this new meat and live without guilt. Would I ever eat meat from living creatures again? Absolutely not. What would be the reasoning, when you have the same product on your plate without taking lives in the process?
Carolyn believes that “cultivated meat is critical to our global fight against climate change.” She writes:
I was raised vegetarian, so I’ve never knowingly eaten meat or understood the desire for it, but I’ve grown to understand that meat is deeply visceral, emotional, and cultural for billions of people. Despite telling folks how bad meat is for the planet, for animal welfare, for slaughterhouse workers, and for their health, global meat consumption is at an all-time high. Instead of focusing on changing people’s ingrained behaviors and habits, we should focus on changing meat itself. While I’m content eating tofu and chickpeas, for most people, nothing can beat the taste of meat except for, well, meat. And that’s what cultivated meat is.
I ate cultivated chicken from GOOD Meat (which currently sells it in Singapore) at COP27 in Egypt late last year. While l can’t tell you that it “tasted like chicken” (because I have no idea what chicken tastes like), it was fleshy and kind of grossed me out—so I’m thinking we’re on the right track? Plus, the meat eaters at my table fully approved. I think we are a ways off from cultivated meat going mainstream, but I am hopeful that what I tasted that day is part of the future and that the next generation looks back at the way we raised and slaughtered animals and thinks, Why did they do it that way?
Patrick runs a commercial cattle ranch with his family on the central coast of California. He writes:
Commercial cattle ranches focus on cattle headed for consumption. I grew up on the ranch then moved away for about 15 years to work in engineering. About six years ago I moved back to the area with my family to get more involved in the ranch. Since I’ve come back, I’ve been surprised to discover that the Meat Utopia is here. The United States is producing more beef than ever, with fewer cattle, and at a higher quality. I see these changes both in the national numbers and also in the way we do business on our own ranch.
The reasons are myriad. Genetic testing and performance monitoring has helped producers select for better-performing animals. Improvements in vaccination have reduced waste, illness, and death. A greater percentage of cattle have higher-quality carcasses. And North American cattle markets are optimizing international trade to match the desired cuts to the appropriate markets. These advancements have real-world implications to reduce the environmental impact of beef while improving the consumer product and keeping costs down. And by acreage, nearly all of the grazing is done on so-called marginal lands: land that is too arid or too steep to support farming.
Erin is in the same business:
My husband and I are cattle producers on a farm in rural west Alabama. Pretty obviously, I do not have moral qualms about eating meat. I’m an omnivore. I am biologically designed to convert meat into the vitamins, minerals, and proteins that sustain me. And I like it. Even so, I can envision a day when vat-grown meat is a primary source of protein. It will have to be ramped up to scale and it will have to get a lot cheaper, but it will be a significant source of protein for a growing world population. That doesn’t mean there will not be a niche market for the uber-wealthy to purchase beef.
For the record, there are a lot of misconceptions about animal agriculture. Cows spend all but the last six weeks of their lives eating grass. They may get mineral supplements as well, especially in winter, but very little grain, if any. Cattle can convert grass to protein. Humans cannot. We cannot digest cellulose. Perhaps in the rain forests of Brazil, the pastures could, and should, be restored to forest. But you are not going to grow a forest just anywhere. There will not be forests in west Texas or even in Kansas.
There is a lot of land in the world not suited for crops or forests that will grow grass. And one of the most efficient converters of grass into usable protein is a cow. Cows provide more than meat. There are hundreds of products produced from cattle: marshmallows, leather, gelatin, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, and more. Just Google “products made from cattle” and you will be astounded. Vat-grown meat? It’s coming, but not in my lifetime. We’ll keep on growing cattle like we have for 40 years. And that is all I have time to say, because I need to move hay out of the barn for the cows before the rain comes.
Kathleen hopes lab-grown pork is delicious:
The only meat I will consume comes from local hunters, whose practices I know—quick, clean kill, full harvest and usage. The animal has had a full and healthy and natural life. And as my dear husband told me years ago, “Honey, nothing in nature dies of old age.” I would buy lab-grown meat in a heartbeat, as soon as it became available and was proven to be environmentally healthy and healthy for human consumption.
My primary motivation for [this] is animal cruelty. Breeding, raising, transporting, and slaughtering “food” animals is monstrous. In Canada, there are the farm lobbies, fishing-and-hunting lobbies, and vendor lobbies—all with massive clout—opposing any significant change. Seeing covert videos taken within animal “businesses” did it for me. And there’s the hideous environmental damage and the damage to human health caused by this “industry.” Altogether, inexcusable. I’m already buying and consuming “artificial” meat but would greatly welcome more variety. (I REALLY miss pork, and there are no pork substitutes available where I live … yet, I hope.)
Claire feels queasy about lab-grown meat:
I tend to be wary of chemically simulated foodstuffs …… so “chicken” fashioned from a sort of ooze during a process that the company prefers not to describe and that was also described as “gray” and “stringy” sounds atrocious. I’m unsure I would be brave enough to try that, nor would I serve it to an enemy. I hope restauranteurs in Singapore at least place an asterisk next to chicken on menus, with a corresponding footnote. Marketing euphemisms seem more likely: “ethically derived chicken,” etc. In spite of the “Utopia” marketing angle, I wonder if the cost to simulate chicken would be a net positive or if it would better serve Singapore to allocate some land for agricultural purposes.
Skya thinks artificial meat has promise for feeding pets:
Personally, I am a vegan and will remain so for health reasons. My cats, on the other hand … While humans are dragging their feet for various reasons, all the domesticated animals of the world could be eating laboratory meat right now, making a large dent in the damage that our passion for pets and other captive carnivores causes to the planet.
Karl gives two cheers for lab-grown meat … but not three:
I’ve been a vegan for ethical reasons since the end of college, so I welcome any developments that help usher in a future where we slaughter fewer animals just because their taste makes us happy. Based on animal-welfare laws (which largely protect animals such as cats and dogs), it’s clear that, collectively, we believe that animals should be treated humanely and their suffering should be minimized. However, we generally don’t extend these protections to the billions of farm animals living today. So reducing their consumption reduces their numbers and thus reduces their collective suffering. I think the reduction of suffering should be an easy position to support.
The environmental benefits have the potential to be incredible as well. A transition away from the inefficient practice of raising animals for food would lower our carbon footprint, reduce our water consumption, and save millions of acres of natural land from destruction. But I wouldn’t suddenly change my diet to match the 200-plus lbs of meat the average American consumes each year, regardless of the ethics. In the developed world, our level of meat consumption is unhealthy and is an immense contributor to disease burden. This is in terms of mortality, morbidity, health-related quality of life, and cost. Maybe we could all eat occasional lab-grown meat. It does taste good. But I don’t think it should be a regular thing. We should all cut back on our meat consumption.