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 . 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  and this combined with multiple studies linking obesity to excessive meat consumption  , 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”  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 . 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 . 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 . 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) . 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.