The moral demand for cultured meat

New meats grown from animal cell cultures will soon hit barbecue restaurants. Maybe that slows a national slaughter

Published February 13, 2016 10:30PM (EST)

 (<a href=''>damnura</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(damnura via iStock)

Last Monday, the Wall Street Journal announced the creation of the “world’s first cultured meatball.” Memphis Meats, the startup behind the dish, revealed its ambitious plans to produce beef and pork using cell cultures. Per its name, the company plans to eventually debut their products at several Memphis-area barbecue restaurants.

This story was quickly followed on Tuesday by Unilever’s announcement of a new eggless spread. This came after the company sued Hampton Creek, the makers of the vegan mayonnaise “Just Mayo,” last year, claiming that the product name was misleading due to the eggless content. That lawsuit sparked a severe backlash in support of Hampton Creek. Unilever’s move seems like a textbook case of, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Continuing the trend on Wednesday, Ben & Jerry’s unveiled their vegan ice cream line — PB & Cookies, Coffee Caramel Fudge, Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Fudge Brownie. A spokesperson told USA Today that, "We've definitely had a large demand from our consumers to have a non-dairy offering."

These developments reflect that Americans have grown discontent with our food system for a number of reasons. Closest to home, eating animals leads to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. One in six Americans contracts a foodborne disease each year. In 54 percent of these cases, and 77 percent of fatal cases, the culprit is an animal product.

Also worrying is that about 80 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to farmed animals, leading to antibiotic resistance that poses a serious public health risk. Last November, a new mutation appeared in bacteria, causing resistance to even the drugs used as a last resort when all other treatments fail. This January, bacteria were identified that carried both this gene and another key resistance gene, worrying scientists and the general public. Both these events were caused by the large amounts of antibiotics given to farmed animals.

The issues extend beyond public health. Raising animals for food is recognized by the United Nations as “a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole” and “one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases.” The process of converting calories from plant-based to animal-based foods is inherently inefficient and makes it more difficult to feed a hungry and growing global population.

The most important moral problem with animal agriculture is the suffering of the farmed animals themselves, an issue increasing in relevance as more and more people recognize that these animals have feelings and awareness much like we do.

The vast majority of farmed animals in the U.S. are raised in terrible conditions, a fact that has been catapulted into public discourse over the past decade by numerous undercover investigations, conducted by whistleblowers who work at farms or slaughterhouses while coordinating with an investigatory organization like Mercy for Animals.

Abuses documented by these investigations include severe confinement, such as tiny battery cages that inhibit the natural behaviors of egg-laying hens like nesting and dust-bathing, as well as painful mutilations like debeaking and castration without anesthetic, and slaughter methods that are even more disconcerting, such as suffocation by gas or chickens being shackled upside-down to have their throats slit and be dunked in scalding hot water, sometimes while still conscious.

These animals struggle until their last breaths, and the public is gaining a deep connection to their pleas for help. At the recent Sundance Film Festival, the nonprofit organization Animal Equality gave visitors the chance to see a factory farm and slaughterhouse with a virtual reality headset. Barbara King from NPR commented on her experience:

I have watched, read and taught about animal suffering in factory farms before. I knew it was bad in factory farms in the U.S., England, Europe, China and Latin America. Yet, something extra-powerful comes across in VR. The heightened visual closeness brings about heightened emotional attunement and, thus, the true extent of the cruelty to individual, sentient animals.

An obvious resolution for these issues on an individual level is leaving animals — as well as their eggs and milk — off our plate. Some suggest we should continue raising them for food and avoid these cruel practices, but that seems exceedingly difficult, even at the most humane farms. As long as we see animals as property for our use and consumption, we can’t ensure a sufficient level of protection.

Much of the difficulty in converting to a post-animal food system exists because eating animals is such a deep-seated tradition for much of humanity. It might have even played a key role in our evolution (in addition to root vegetables like potatoes). We are accustomed to animal products, and it’s not obvious to most of us how we can satisfy our "meat hunger" with plant-based options. We rationalize our consumption with the 4 N’s: “natural,” “normal,” “necessary” and “nice” (for our taste buds).

But with the advent of sophisticated plant-based options and cultured meat, these rationalizations are becoming more difficult to wield. Even now, some plant-based meats are indistinguishable from their animal-based alternatives in blind taste tests. Increasing numbers of healthy vegans, vegetarians and reducetarians is adding to the medical evidence that eating animals is unnecessary and even detrimental to our health.

Author Sam Harris created a Twitter poll shortly after the cultured meat announcement last week, asking his followers how they felt about the new technology. Some 83 percent of his followers who responded said they would switch to cultured meat, suggesting a substantial demand for these new products and dissatisfaction with the current food system.

Some even believe that our descendants will see the practice of eating animals as barbaric and unethical, and as we gain more appealing ethical food options, these moral issues become increasingly apparent. Winston Churchill announced his hope in 1931:

We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

Cultured meat and sophisticated plant-based products leave no room for excuses. When we face a decision between two products identical in taste and texture — one having huge benefits for ourselves and the sentient individuals that share this planet with us — could the choice be any clearer?

By Jacy Reese Anthis

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