"Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" --
In Vitro Meat, Animals and the
In just a few years, in vitro
meat--actual chicken flesh, ham, and beef grown in a laboratory from cloned
cells rather than cut from the dead body of a slaughtered animal--may be on
the shelves of supermarkets and the tables of restaurants. Press reports
indicate that the basic techniques for growing meat in a laboratory rather
than on an animal already exist and that researchers have turned their
attention to secondary technical problems relating to the texture and color
of the meat and the design of an apparatus on which cloned meat can be mass
produced cheaply and easily.
And already, before the product even
exists in a marketable form, in vitro meat has become controversial within
the global animal protection and vegetarian communities. This is not
surprising. Throughout history, a vegetarian (or vegan) diet has been the
only ethically adequate response to the harms caused by meat eating. The
idea that soon this may no longer be the case will take some getting used
To understand the potential benefits of in vitro meat (and
possibly even in vitro eggs and milk), we have to take a closer look at the
actual harms caused by meat eating. These harms, I would suggest, arise from
three sources :
Raising animals for their flesh, which in its modern
incarnation constitutes a particularly egregious form of animal cruelty
(factory farming), contributes to global warming, and pollutes the air,
earth, and water.
Killing animals for their flesh, which is the
ultimate cruelty and also a serious source of environmental degradation.
Eating the flesh of animals, which if done in excess is harmful to the
health of the eater. (I have seen no convincing evidence that for normal,
healthy people, a varied diet which includes some animal flesh is harmful to
human health--although for people with heart disease and certain other
conditions, even small amounts of meat might be harmful.)
replacement of meat from sentient beings by meat grown on racks in
laboratories would eliminate the first two of the three sources of harm
caused by eating meat. The third--which strikes me as the least ethically
problematic of the three--would not be affected.
But--as the saying
goes-- Two out of three ain't bad. And eliminating the animal cruelty and
environmental degradation caused by raising and slaughtering animals for
their flesh should be more than adequate reason for animal rights and
vegetarian activists to support in vitro meat. We have not been able to
persuade the public to stop eating meat, but it may prove far easier to
persuade people to eat in vitro meat.
According to public opinion
surveys, the number of vegetarians in America has been stagnant for at least
a dozen years at 5% of the adult population, with less than half of those
(around 2% of the adult population) being vegan.
In many countries,
reliable, up-to-date numbers can be hard to come by, but globally, except
for countries like India and China that have a long tradition of
vegetarianism, the percentage of vegetarians seems generally stuck in single
The strategy of just telling people to stop eating meat
isn't working, and there is no reason to think it will work in the future.
Abolitionist advocacy must be supplemented by other strategies, of which the
promotion of in vitro meat could become one of the most important.
believe that global warming will soon provide the motivation for governments
and corporations to pursue research on in vitro meat much more aggressively
than has been the case up to now. When that happens, it won't be long before
meat grown in laboratories tastes, chews, and looks like the original and
costs less to produce. And that would be something we should all celebrate.
The greatest single advance for animals since they were first
enslaved en masse during the Neolithic revolution came not from ethical
advocacy, but from technical progress, viz..the invention of the steam
engine and the internal combustion engine, which liberated horses, donkeys,
mules, oxen, and other animals from slave labor throughout the
industrialized world. In vitro meat could have a similar benefit for cows,
pigs, sheep and other farmed animals while easing global warming and freeing
up resources, including land and water, for use in relieving human hunger
Sometimes I think that animal and vegetarian activists
have become so used to being ignored and marginalized that we, perhaps
unconsciously, begin to think of vegetarianism and animal liberation as a
kind of parlor game in which we can indulge our fantasies with complete
freedom, unrestrained by reality.
And when this happens, we stop
asking ourselves, -- What will do the most good in the real world?" Instead,
we start to wonder, -- What would be the most perfect world that we can
Visions of perfection can be important; they have their
place. But they are no substitute for practical steps that might actually
reduce animal exploitation and slow global warming. And in the near future,
one of those steps may just turn out to be meat grown in a laboratory.
Norm Phelps is an American animal
rights activist and author. His new book, Changing the Game : 'Why Animal
Rights Is the Hardest Battle Ever Fought . . . And How We Can Win It' will
be published as an ebook in the spring of 2013.