Ethics of the World’s First Synthetic Burger

So, the world’s first synthetic burger has been cultured, minced, fried and consumed. (Mark Post, the scientist who conceived of and grew the synthetic burger, had announced a year and a half ago his near-term intention to produce and test a lab-grown burger. Apparently he’s a man of his word.)

The verdict of the taste test? Roughly: ‘needs seasoning, but not bad.’

What about the ethics?

To begin, it’s important not to be distracted by the notion being bandied about that lab-grown meat is going to feed the world. That’s not going to happen any time soon. The energy and other inputs for the process that results in synthetic meat is still liable to be very significant. So this process is not liable to result in a cheap new source of calories; but it may well result in a cheap(er) new source of meat, and that is going to be important, especially if we are to satisfy the growing demand for meat products in developing nations such as China. I suspect that if (or when) synthetic meat becomes important here in the West, it will be as an ingredient in frozen egg-rolls or as an additive in taco beef, and so on. It’s probably best to think of this new product making its primary inroads “at the margin,” as economists put it. Don’t expect to see a pound of this stuff sold at your local butcher any day soon.

The really big benefits, ethically, have to do with animal welfare and environmental impact. Peter Singer, the philosopher most directly responsible for the growth of the animal welfare / animal liberation movement, has referred to Post’s new dish as “the world’s first cruelty-free burger.” Modern animal agriculture is widely recognized as resulting in an enormous amount of animal suffering. Yes, yes, boutique shoppers do have access to meat from animals that have been grass fed, otherwise coddled, and then humanely slaughtered, but that’s not how most of the world’s meat is produced — not by a long shot. And animal agriculture is increasingly recognized as environmentally dreadful. Pig farms produce enormous quantities of untreated manure; beef feedlots produce vast amounts of methane. And so on. But the fundamental environmental problem with animal agriculture comes down to physics: animals are a relatively inefficient way to transform vegetable calories (mostly) into calories of meat product. The energy wastage is enormous. Lab-grown meat, if it can be scaled up and produced with the same ruthless efficiency that typifies other factory-made foods, promises to solve that problem.

(Note: the $330,000 price tag attached to this burger is a red herring. That reflects a lot of R&D costs, and bears no relevance whatsoever to the cost of the lab-grown meat we could be consuming a decade from now. Compare: the fact that a new heart drug cost $800 million to develop means that the “first pill” can be said to cost that much, but that doesn’t mean that the mass-produced pills to follow will be expensive at all.)

Are there ethical objections to lab-grown meat? A few possible ones come to mind, though I don’t think any of them is compelling.

Let’s start with safety. Will lab-grown meat be safe? Well, that remains to be seen, I suppose. But we have the technology to test new products for safety. We can test for the relevant pathogens, and so on. And there’s no particular reason to expect that lab grown-meat won’t be just as safe (or unsafe!) as meat grown other ways.

Some will worry about the amount of animal product inputs that will be required to make lab-grown meat. Some news sources are reporting that Post cultured his meat in fetal bovine serum, which comes from the blood of calf fetuses. This raises the spectre of millions of pounds of lab-grown meat being cultured in millions of gallons of fetal bovine serum, requiring the slaughter of untold millions of calves. But this worry shouldn’t be exaggerated: fetal bovine serum is seriously expensive, so while it may have been used in the production of this burger, we can safely assume that any mass-produced burgers will be cultured in a suitable artificial substitute medium.

Others will object to any quantity of animal inputs: after all, synthetic beef is still cultured from beef cells, and those ultimately come from a cow, a living being. If you’re a hardcore proponent of animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare) then you might well object that synthetic meat is still, well, meat, and that it has to be cultured from cells drawn from a real animal. But anyone taking that line will eventually find themselves counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Finally, some will object to lab-grown meat simply because it is “artificial.” But that’s a spurious distinction, and an aesthetic objection masquerading as an ethical one. Much of what we eat now is already artificial in all the senses that make any difference. And there’s no particular reason to object to things simply on the basis of their artificiality.

Of course, ethical optimism also needs to be tempered by a realization that there are a lot of scientific and technological steps between growing enough meat for a single barely-edible lab-grown burger and producing synthetic beef (or chicken or pork or fish) on a mass scale. But on the whole, I think the development of lab-grown burgers is an excellent thing, from an ethical point of view. Or at least, very promising.


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(I’ve blogged before about synthetic meat, in blog entries entitled “Who wants test-tube meat?”, “Ethics, Ideology, and Synthetic Meat”, and “Would You Like Your Synthetic Meat GM or Non-GM?”).

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, biotechnology, ethics, factory farms, meat, natural, science | 4 Comments

Ethics of Small Choices

whats_in_my_coffeeYesterday, on my Business Ethics Blog, I published a short blog entry about an ethical dilemma faced by a coffee shop.

The dilemma — and disagreement between co-owners — was whether to offer the standard range of sweeteners and whiteners with their coffees, or whether to impose a vision of what counts as healthy additions for coffee. Oversimplifying: should they offer artificial sweeteners or not?

It’s a real-life case. And it sounds like a small matter, but with the recent politicization of and moralizing about food, the question not surprisingly became a bone of contention for the people involved.

My argument is essentially this:
1) The evidence is thin for any health advantage for “real” sugar. In fact, “real” sugar is known to be unhealthy, whereas for artificial sweeteners the question is still up in the air.
2) The quantities involved are tiny, so relax.
3) If it’s even a close call, go for consumer autonomy — the freedom to choose.

That’s not to say that a coffee shop can’t make “all natural” a part of its branding, and choose condiments accordingly. It’s just that no one should confuse that with making a clear-cut ethical decision.

Posted in choice, ethics, health, marketing, natural, nutrition, restaurants, values | 5 Comments

Bigger Birds

Innovation isn’t always good for everyone.

See this blog entry about how artificial insemination has allowed the turkey industry to triple the average size of a turkey over the last 50 years: Give Thanks? Science Supersized Your Turkey Dinner. (The problem for turkeys has to do with limiting their “normal” behaviour. At 30 pounds or more, “It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act.”)

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Via Marginal Revolution

Posted in agriculture, animal welfare, breeding, factory farms, meat, science

Consumer Rights and GMO Labelling: Proposition 37

Over on my Business Ethics Blog, I recently posted an entry on “GMO Labelling and Consumer Rights.” That entry overlaps partially with a previous blog entry of mine on this blog, called “The Right to Know What I’m Eating.” The occasion for revisiting the issue is of course the impending vote on California’s “Proposition 37,” which would provide for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.

The only thing I’ll add here is a very brief response to a piece by Michael Pollan, which appeared in NYT Magazine. The piece is called “Vote for the Dinner Party: Is this the year that the food movement finally enters politics?” Pollan’s argument is essentially that Big Ag has too much power, and that voting “Yes” on Prop 37 is a way for voters to show Big Ag who is really boss. I usually like Pollan’s work, but this is a very weak argument. There’s plenty of reason to complain about Big Ag, but passing a bad piece of legislation just to stick it to them is a very bad idea. Food is important, so let’s pass legislation on issues that really matter, grounded in sound reasoning instead.

In a free society, you don’t pass laws requiring other people to change their behaviour unless their current behaviour is doing some harm or violating some right. There is still no evidence that GM foods do any harm, and requiring their labelling does not effectively protect anyone’s right to anything.

Posted in biotechnology, genetic modification, GMO, law | 2 Comments

Corporate Dilution of the Meaning of “Organic”

A few days ago there was an exceptionally interesting article in the NY Times on the corporatization of organic foods. See Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?, by Stephanie Strom. The story outlines the controversy over the composition of the US board charged with the task of determining just what can, and cannot, be put into a food labelled as “organic,” as well as over some of the specific decisions made by that board. In particular, there’s a worry by organic advocates that big business has come to dominate the board, and that its decisions are often out of line with the true spirit of the organic movement.

As Andrew Potter (no relation to the Mr. Potter mentioned below) points out, there’s a lot more going on here than a tussle over definitions.

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various “synthetics” should be allowed or not is entirely political. That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It’s clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term “sustainability” is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term “inequality”.

To see what Andrew means, check out this passage from the NYT article:

Ingredients like carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with a somewhat controversial health record. Or synthetic inositol, which is manufactured using chemical processes.

Mr. [Michael J.] Potter [a seller of organic foods and an advocate of tougher standards] was allowed to voice his objections to carrageenan for three minutes before the group, the National Organic Standards Board.

“Someone said, ‘Thank you,'” Mr. Potter recalls.

And that was that.

Two days later, the board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the growing list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products with the coveted “certified organic” label. To organic purists like Mr. Potter, it was just another sign that Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business.

What the article never makes clear is just what is wrong with carrageenan in food. (Carrageenan is an additive, derived from seaweed, that has been used in foods for hundreds of years.) There’s mention in the article of a “controversial health record” but that’s pretty vague. A quick search online suggests that there are some specific worries, but none of those worries seems, as far as I can tell, to imply that the stuff shouldn’t be considered non-organic or ineligible for inclusion in organic foods.

Posted in Additives, agriculture, certifiction, organic, regulation

Could GMO Technology Make Tomatoes More Authentic?

The LA Times ran an interesting piece a couple of days ago about Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. It turns out, according to new scientific research, that the hybridization carried out by tomato breeders over the last several decades has inadvertently introduced a mutation that interferes with sugar production within tomatoes — and hence made standard grocery-store tomatoes less tasty.

It’s important to note that this was the result of good old-fashioned hybridization, the kind of cross-breeding of plants that humans have been doing for thousands of years, the kind that has given us pretty much all of the fruits and vegetables that our species has lived on for generations.

But the LA Times mentions that the technologies of laboratory genetic engineering could be used to reverse, in a precise way, this clumsy error. In fact, scientists have done so in the lab, but such reverse-engineered tomatoes are unlikely to make it to grocery store shelves.

But what if — however unlikely, given regulatory hurdles and problems of public acceptance — tomatoes genetically engineered in a way that reversed this error made it onto grocery store shelves? What if we could buy tomatoes genetically engineered to include a gene their tasty ancestors originally had? In a sense, the result would be, far from something “unnatural,” a more authentic tomato than the ones currently available.

The concept of authenticity is a vexed one. For some it has to do with “naturalness.” For some it has to do with pedigree, with where a thing came from. In his terrific 2010 book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter suggests that in at least some instances, people regard authenticity as having something to do with being true to some vision of what a thing ought to be. From this point of view, genetically engineering the tomato to reactivate the GLK2 gene would result in a more authentic tomato, one truer to what tomatoes used to be, truer to the tomatoes your great-grandmother used to enjoy as a child.


(A while back I interviewed Andrew Potter, about his book, The Authenticity Hoax).

Posted in agriculture, biotechnology, genes, genetic modification, GMO, natural, values

Ethics of Eating Meat

A recent Toronto Star piece on the ethics of eating meat quotes me, briefly, on the topic of lab-grown meat (something I’ve blogged about before).

The main point of the article, however, is to make an attempt to marshall a range of arguments specifically in favour of meat eating, generally. It’s a valiant effort; unfortunately none of the arguments put forward holds any water.

I’ll offer here just a few quick points of rebuttal, before offering some thoughts of my own:

1) The fact that “all animals die” anyway doesn’t count for much, when we are the ones who raise them in vast numbers just in order to kill them. Aside from wild animals killed by hunters, animals we eat only die because we raise them for that purpose.

2) The fact that animals are slaughtered more-or-less humanely is, in itself, a good thing, but does little to respond to several key arguments against eating meat.

3) No, eating meat is not just a “personal choice.” At very least, the environmental impact of meat makes it a social issue. So yes, you personally have to choose, but you have an obligation to choose well. It’s no more a mere personal choice than the choice of whether to drive a gas-guzzling car.

4) No, we don’t need meat, nutritionally. Yes, it’s still in Canada’s food guide, but as the article notes the food guide lists “meat and alternatives” as the relevant category.

5) The fact that there is some evidence some plants can communicate in some ways is not relevant. It doesn’t imply biologically that they can feel pain. Even if (if!) plants can feel pain, we would still have reason to stick to eating whatever things feel pain least, or least intensively, etc. That is, plants would likely still be the least-cruel option.

6) Chimpanzee diet isn’t relevant. Chimps do lots of things that would be considered unethical if we humans did them. Infanticide, for starters.

7) The fact that we’ve got certain physiological features that suggest we are built for hunting and/or eating meat doesn’t mean that eating meat is right. The fact that something is “natural” doesn’t make it healthy or good. Counter-examples are easy to generate.

8) The fact that meat is in certain ways highly nutritious doesn’t count for much, given that it is very well established by now that humans can eat very high-quality diets low or lacking in animal proteins. That goes for competitive athletes as well.

OK, so much for critique. Let’s move on to the arguments against meat.

There are three or four main kinds of ethical objections to meat, different reasons given by different people in advancing either philosophical or casual arguments against eating animals:

1) If animals have rights (e.g., a right to life), then it would be wrong to eat them. Rights are essentially a moral line drawn in the sand. When someone has a right to something, it is generally unethical to violate that right.

2) If animals deserve moral consideration (even in the absence of rights) then we might have an obligation to minimize their suffering. That is, if pain — all pain — is bad, then we should try to reduce it (and not to cause it). Despite efforts to render slaughter more humane, animal agriculture still causes plenty of suffering.

3) The meat industry is notoriously bad environmentally. Millions of acres are dedicated to growing crops to feed animals — and those millions of acres require gazillions of gallons of water and immense quantities of pesticides. Oh, and raising those crops requires immense petroleum inputs. From an energy point of view, meat is an incredibly inefficient way to feed people. So even if animals don’t matter, eating (much) meat might be a failure of your obligations to your fellow humans.

4) Eating large quantities of meat isn’t particularly good for you. That in itself isn’t really an ethical issue — you can do whatever you want to yourself. But how you treat your kids, for example, is certainly an ethical issue. So you might have an ethical obligation to limit your kids’ consumption of meat, just as you have an obligation to limit their consumption of sugary foods.

So, is eating meat ethical? I don’t think it can be declared categorically unethical, because I don’t think the animal rights argument works: there’s no sound philosophical foundation for attributing rights to animals. Feel free to disagree. In fact, I think the environmental argument is the most compelling. But that means that it’s not a black-or-white issue. If you think about meat as an environmental issue, then it’s a matter of degree. You should eat less, rather than more, the same as you should use less, rather than more, gasoline. Is eating any meat at all unethical? No. Are we all obligated to reduce or minimize? I think clearly yes.

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, choice, health, kids, meat, nutrition | 3 Comments