From test tube racks to McDonald’s Big Mac’s

The latest UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports suggest livestock are responsible for 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – the same amount produced by all the world’s cars, planes, boats, and trains [1]. Laboratory grown meat, also known as “in vitro meat” offers a sustainable alternative to livestock farming methods. But, while meat without methane is a mouth-watering prospect, its development and widespread use, risk leaving a bitter after taste for many within third world communities and the meat industry, begging the question, is In Vitro Meat (IVM) ethical?


An ethical TV dinner?

Since food critics in London ate the first IVM burger on 5th August 2013, the idea that it may one day be found on your BBQ at home or in a McDonalds Big Mac, has met resistance. The World Health Organisation predicts 75% of adults in the US will be obese by 2020 [2] and this combined with multiple studies linking obesity to excessive meat consumption [3] [4], suggests the production of meat should be being scaled back, not encouraged. When you consider almost all hungry people, 780 million, live in developing countries, representing 12.9 percent of the population of developing counties” [5] it seems the real problem is access to food, and it is unethical to be developing methods which make excessive consumption easier or more acceptable in countries that already have chronic obesity rates.

In addition, companies involved in meat production, along with their suppliers, distributors, retailers, and ancillary industries employ 6.2 million people in the U.S. alone with jobs that total $200 billion in wages [6]. Change to high tech methods will undoubtedly face opposition from farmers and suppliers who feel threats to their livelihoods and job security. The transition to IVM not only cuts the need for people providing grain, farmland and processing but also makes farming skills inadequate for adopting IVM. Forcing many, who aren’t willing to do a PhD in microbiology, out of life long professions.

Therefore, IVM ethics are questionable when there is already such an imbalance between the developed and developing worlds food supplies. IVM in the short term, does nothing to alleviate the suffering of many who cannot access food, while causing increased suffering to those losing their jobs to the technology. Furthermore, while the driving force of IVM is supposedly ethical in protecting the planet, the suffering resulting from starvation currently is so great that a far greater moral principle would be focus on getting food to where it matters FIRST, before making it more sustainable.

There are alternatives, by switching to more sustainable meats, such as chicken rather than beef, the resources used and greenhouse gases produced can be significantly reduced. Cows release the equivalent of 16kg of carbon dioxide for every kilo of meat produced, while chickens are responsible for only 4.4kg of CO2 per kilo of meat [7]. This goes hand in hand with re-education of both producers and consumers into the effects of red meat production on both the planet and health. Farmers would have the choice to switch to chickens as opposed to losing out to IVM all together, while the links to weight problems and excessive red meat consumption can be used to drive down demand in countries suffering from obesity, forcing relocation of markets to developing countries where the meat really is needed.

Or a sustainable delicacy?

Although lab grown meat has suffered criticism since hitting the headlines in 2013, opposition is nothing more than peoples fear of what they do not understand. The real benefits of IVM seem to have been lost amongst fears of “my burgers won’t be so juicy”, “I like seeing cows in the fields” and “Ew- it’s come from a lab, it will probably give me leprosy”. But in reality, IVM contributes to tackling THE BIGGEST ethical challenge facing mankind today, global warming.


Farming livestock are one of the largest producers of greenhouse causing the destruction to the ozone layer with cows the main culprit, producing 44% of the methane emitted into the atmosphere [8]. IVM offers a solution, not only could it be eventually cheaper than conventional methods, but the greenhouse gases (methane, co2 and n20) emitted from the livestock would be reduced dramatically. IVM would also reduce the likelihood of diseases being spread from animals, like Mad-Cow or E-coli, due to the meat being created from a single muscle strain, where the genetics of the meat are known and the conditions in which its produced, carefully controlled. What’s more controlling what goes into meat may grant health benefits, where sources of lean high quality protein become staple, in place of the existing, high fat meats.



Currently, raising an animal from birth to slaughter utilises a massive amount natural resources. In brazil alone, since 1970 more than 616 thousand kilometres of rainforest have been lost directly for the use of raising cattle (80% of overall deforestation) [9]. This number is growing constantly and not only represents the obliteration of some of the world’s most diverse eco-systems but the deliberate destruction of our only line of defence against greenhouse gases and climate change.


Ultimately, the development of IVM has the potential, if it can upscale cost effectively, to drastically reduce greenhouse gas production from livestock, free up vast areas of land for reforestation and provide access to safe and clean meat in developing countries. Common sense suggests that by taking care of the planet, the global population as a stakeholder is benefitting from IVM, supported by the Utilitarian ethical framework of maximising happiness and minimising suffering to as many as possible. The main challenge to this, is timing and uncertainty, with IVM in its infancy improved global climate will only be seen long after existing stakeholders have suffered from the transition. Kantianism ethics could still support the decision to progress with IVM since the decision would be made on moral principle and detached from the outcome, but neither framework is ideal. Instead, progression with IVM should be carried out involving those stakeholders opposed to it, to address their concerns in a way that limits unhappiness for them. Working under a “contract theory” for ethics, finds consensus in doing what’s right regardless of opposing principles if it can be done in such a way that the negative impact on stakeholders is reduced to an acceptable level.



10 thoughts on “From test tube racks to McDonald’s Big Mac’s

  1. I think the fact that methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (in the short term) in terms of greenhouse gas effect is too important to have been missed here. (

    However, having armed the pro IVM camp with a considerable weapon, why not harness said methane as a free, relatively clean energy resource? Its in the daily mail,
    it MUST be true!


    1. It’s an interesting idea. I suppose the question is how you capture methane from animals without limiting there welfare. Keeping livestock indoors when cattle ranches in the states have tens if not hundreds of thousands of cattle is no mean task! Not too mention the resistance from animal rights activists that inevitably ensue any attempt to contain cattle in confined spaces.

      I personally think excessive consumption is the problem and it’s the responsibility of fast food chains such as McDonald’s an the like to step up and address the issue


  2. Fast food chains no matter what they advertise are never going to try and prevent customers eating there food. So what 70% of adults in the states are obese, its money in the shareholders pockets at the end of the day the idea they will stop envoursging the consumption of there food and therefore beef is crazy.

    It’s a shame because I agree with you, the fast food industry does have the power, money and control over the market to make a genuine difference. As the article mentions, chicken is far more sustainable and esiser to produce In resource friendly way. Perhaps a change to the menu or maybe a price increase on beef products would help?

    It would either drive down consumption or beef or if they do chose to, the extra money gained from the price increase could be ploughed into developing methods for either harness or removing methane bi products from cattle…

    Just a though


  3. Interesting article of a very murky world that governments don’t want you to know about. It is true that this could solve dietary problems the world over. But it is almost unthinkable that the fast food giants ( who more or less run the world) would stand by and let this happen. They thrive on the publics love of gorging on there tasty burgers. While ever they are making profit, nothing else matters. But could they argue with helping to solve world hunger? Probably yes if it effects there shareholders.
    Interesting point about methane gases. Possibly a solution to make use of these would be a start in solving some of the worlds problems.


  4. Interesting comments – I broadly agree with the conclusion and gist of your argument. However, I think you miss a key aspect of the debate. While I agree that you are correct in that climate change is the single biggest existential threat/moral dilemma facing the human race, I think the issue is that until governments accept this line both in theory AND in practice, little constructive can be done to combat the overall effects. Efforts have been made towards this end, but the result has often been largely superficial, and states like the United States under President Trump are moving to reverse these effects. Because the issue is a global issue, it requires the cooperation of at least the majority of world governments to make enough progress to significantly alter or even reverse the current pattern of climate change. Ultimately, the introduction of some sort of flat tax on products relative to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released in the production of said product could be a simplistic way to achieve such results. Nonetheless, you are correct that in the interim efforts are most constructively used by involving those producers who stand to lose money on the IVM production of meat. In addition, common sense dictates that the more that these products are introduced and awareness of them is raised, people’s initial knee-jerk reaction against the conception of lab grown meat would be expected to subside. Unfortunately, as you have alluded to in the article, little is likely to change until we reach some sort of breaking point – the current situation will surely get worse before it gets better.


  5. Interesting reading. I think your right it is so important to try protect the planet from climate change which will ultimately Benifit the whole population. People need to become more aware of this issue to help change as things slowly change they become the norm. It’s certainly not going to be an instant fix and will as you say affect many jobs


  6. This is a thought provoking article. Here are just a few of my thoughts .
    I don’t think that that there is a choice between IVM and changing how we currently feed the world, we need to do both.
    The potential for IVM to provide protein for an expanding world population in the future means that research needs to continue.
    Issues that currently exist around food distribution globally are to a large extent political, unless there is the will to cooperate we will not solve the problems of hunger and overconsumption.
    For example farmers in USA produce subsidised crops, such as corn used to produce High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is linked to type 2 diabetes and also floods into Mexico resulting in loss of jobs as well as health problems.
    Drought in Africa is a problem of climate but earlier government intervention could prevent large scale famine.
    Add to this the disturbing fact that there are people in high office who believe that climate change is a hoax.


  7. A very interesting article which raises facts that I was unaware of. I agree that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed to benefit our future generations and not just ignored like many people are at the minute, while IVM seems like it could help this process I feel that it will be face many obstacles mainly from the bigger companies. I also believe that we need to protect our farming industry more so maybe trying to to find a sustainable solution for harvesting the methane produced by live stock wouldn’t be met with as many obstacles and would also benefit our future generations.


  8. Thereare a lot of things here to think about. While it is heartening that science and technology are trying to provide some answers to global problems, my worry is that those behind IVM are not really interested in solving famine, preventing global warming or giving us ‘healthier’ meat. Seeing how Monsanto have used genetically modified crops to undermine farmers’ choices of what to plant and to force smaller farms to buy new seed since some gm crops do not self seed, I would worry that the food industry is moving – albeit gradually – out of local control. If followed through, IVM will eventually become very cheap but controls as to what goes into the culture medium will hardly be stringent where big business is concerned.


  9. My initial thought was “overtones of Soylent Green”.

    As Newton stated “Matter cannot be created or destroyed”: so what is the source of the ingredients of IVM?

    Palm oil is a great idea, unless your an Orangutan.


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