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.

(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?”).

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, biotechnology, ethics, factory farms, meat, natural, science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ethics of the World’s First Synthetic Burger

  1. scoutts says:

    There seems to be something missing in this general argument – that producing something synthetic will solve the “problem” of global meat consumption. If we reduce the problem to one of energy consumption and personal preference, then how does one address the ethics of meat production? Is it not perhaps the entire scientific-industrial mentality which generates the suffering of animals in the first place; and is this not the core ethical dilemma?

    • I’m not sure I understand. If you’re saying that meat production — even synthetic meat production — will always be more energy intensive that other kinds of food production, and that that’s a bad thing, then I would probably agree with you. I think the point is to find LESS energy-intensive ways to get people the things they are (unfortunately?) going to insist on having.

  2. Interesting stuff, Thank you.
    To me it seems that ethically it’s a pretty one sided argument.
    Lab-grown meat will be better for the environment, will alleviate animal suffering, will free up loads of farm land and will be stop us wasting antibiotics on farm animals.
    My concern is about who will control this technology.
    The future of the world’s food is too important to leave in the hands of corporations and so I want to see this led by governments via the UN.
    I wrote this.

  3. Snipergirl says:

    Great post, and I agree with you entirely.

    Honestly, the only convincing ethical argument against vat-meat that I can think of is if a cheap supply of meat means that everyone suddenly eats too much meat and bears the health consequences. However, firstly, the vat-meat is 100% lean and avoids many of the health consequences of meat, and secondly it seems unlikely to me that meat will ever be priced cheaper than vegetables, as presumably a similar process can be used to grow cheap supplies of vat-vegetables.

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