Ethical meat on the horizon?

Quorn fillets

Today's fake meat - delicious Quorn fillets (image by Jan Ainali)

I’ve been on holiday, but while searching for vegetarian food in Tenerife I found myself thinking about the ‘test tube burgers’ I’d been reading about just before I left. In the Canary islands, nearly all the red meat is imported from the mainland because there’s very little grazing space for animals – wouldn’t it be so much easier if they could just grow their own burgers in factories?

The next question is, would I eat ‘artificial’ meat? I’ve been asked this before, and to me it’s a no-brainer – why wouldn’t I? If I could eat a steak that had never been near a real cow, and had never had to be hacked out of a once-living animal, then sure I would (although I wouldn’t pay the estimated £200,000 for the first lab-grown burger). And I hope other people would too – where’s the harm in a more ethical, more environmentally friendly piece of protein?

The Guardian ran a poll to find out what readers thought about lab-grown meat – would they give it a try? Despite the really unappetising picture of what appeared to be a piece of snot in a petri dish, 68% said they would. But what about the almost 32% who said no?

I don’t think this is just about how it might taste. There’s another sort of yuck factor at work here – the one that rears its head when certain meat eaters are forced to think about where their food comes from. And there’s definitely an unhealthy dose of ‘Frankenstein food fear’, despite the fact that most of us eat digusting/delicious artificial junk like Mars Bars all the time.

Lab-grown meat is one of those button-pushing issues that exposes strange irrational prejudices against what people see as unnatural and unnecessary scientific advances. But as the scientists working towards the world’s first stem cell burger point out, we can’t go on eating meat at our present rate. More people plus less land equals less meat to go round, and much more expensive steaks.

I firmly believe that we’ll all be eating a lot less meat in the future – the numbers are certainly pointing in that direction. And perhaps artificial burger factories could prevent die-hard carnivores from making the ultimate sacrifice (not that ultimate sacrifice – that’s the one the animals make).

But this idea exposes my own irrational prejudice – it annoys me a little that lab-grown meat could be a techno-fix that neatly sidesteps the ethical questions around eating animals. I know I should be pleased if more people switched to fake meat, but scientific breakthroughs are no substitute for ethical and philosophical debate.

On the other hand, advances like this often highlight ethical questions that otherwise don’t get much attention. For example, would a vegetarian eat a burger that had originally been derived from cells taken from an animal, even if that animal only experienced minimal suffering when the sample was taken? And if artificial burgers end up costing the same as ‘traditional’ meat, would some people still eat the real thing? How would this choice look to others?

Whatever the new questions this issue throws up, it’s always interesting when something that previously seemed like science fiction appears on the horizon of reality. In an ideal scenario, artificial meat could help save the planet, reduce animal suffering and bring better nutrition to people around the world. Let’s hope any imaginative worst-case scenarios (sentient burgers?) remain strictly fictional…


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