Can in-vitro meat save the world?


“£200,000 test-tube burger marks milestone in future meat-eating”, proclaimed The Guardian. “Could in-vitro meat save the world?”, asked Bioedge, a website dedicated to bioethical issues. The answer could well be yes, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who said "It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer."

The August launch of lab-bred ‘meat’ in London was, according to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, “a masterly act of timing, theatre, and media management.”

 “Considerable scepticism is required”, Lang warned.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and author of 1975’s seminal Animal Liberation, clearly didn’t get the memo. Writing in the Guardian, Singer lauded the first public tasting of Dr Mark Post’s in-vitro beefburger as an “historic event” which, although he hadn’t eaten meat for 40 years, had convinced him to try in-vitro meat should it become commercially available. Singer’s decision was based on two reasons: To reduce animal suffering and to help the environment. “Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees”, Singer said. In contrast “In vitro meat won't belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary.”

Two inconvenient facts suggest Singer’s enthusiasm is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Firstly, production costs for the test tube beefburger are currently running at over £200,000 – funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as it happens. This astronomical cost means it will likely take years to produce it on a commercially viable level – up to 20 years according to Post, a timeline the Associate Editor for environment and energy at Scientific American magazine calls “optimistic”.

The problem is we simply haven’t got 20 years to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Rather the New Economics Foundation stated in 2008 we had just 100 months to stop “runaway climate change.” Organisations as diverse as the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency have all confirmed the prognosis is dire and requires immediate, radical action. So, to be clear, in terms of helping to combat climate change in-vitro meat will likely be of no help during the period when action is needed most – within the next five years.

Even worse than Singer’s support of a technological fix to what is an acute political problem for which solutions already exist, his salivating over beefburgers arguably perpetuates, rather than questions, our cultural obsession with meat. As one of my university lecturers, Professor Sarah Churchwell, once noted in a seminar “representation without criticism equals endorsement”. Apologies, Sarah, if I’ve misquoted you. By so publicly championing in-vitro meat Singer’s article reinforces the popular idea that meat, especially beef, is intrinsically desirable – a high-value luxury food that represents wealth and social advancement.

By buying into the dominant cultural-historic ideology that makes meat eating so attractive to so many, Singer’s PR-like article is arguably damaging in two ways:  in terms of individual health and the relationship between meat and climate  change – the very reason he says he supports in-vitro meat.

On the first point, Singer, and all of the coverage of in-vitro meat that I have seen, ignores the negative health impacts of eating red and processed meat. As Denis Campbell, the Guardian’s Health Correspondent, noted in March 2013 “The evidence implicating processed and/or red meat… in illness has been building up in recent years” with the World Cancer Research Fund recommending “shunning processed meat completely” since 2007. Campbell concluded his article making the startling claim that “Privately, some experts and health campaigners admit that only the fear of being seen as completely out of touch prevents them from agreeing publicly with the WCRF… they preach moderation, not abstinence, for pragmatic reasons.” As I argue above, even if in-vitro meat is able to be produced without the cancer-causing properties of red meat – and that’s an important if – its championing and production still reinforces the idea that meat is a desirable, high-value food – and thus does nothing to challenge the high-level of consumption of red and processed meat and its attendant negative health effects.

Secondly, as Singer mentioned in his article, meat-eating is a significant contributor to climate change. In 2006 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization named livestock as a “major player” in affecting climate change, estimating it generated 18 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. To reduce this impact experts such as Lord Nicholas Stern and the Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri recommend a reduction in meat consumption and dairy products – a vegan or nearly vegetarian diet, basically.

This reduction would also give us a good chance of meeting the nutrition requirements of the earth’s increasing population and be effective in addressing the looming water crisis. On the former, it is important to remember the well-known truism that there is already enough food to feed the world’s population. One in eight people around the globe does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life because of many factors including war, natural disasters, poverty, agricultural infrastructure, environmental degradation and economics factors such as supply, access and affordability, not because they can’t buy a test-tube beefburger.

The Guardian’s coverage of the launch agreed “The best way to prevent this environmental damage… would be if everyone could be persuaded to eat less meat”. However, it went on to assert that “no one thinks that will happen – the desire to eat meat is ingrained deep in our evolution, according to Harvard University primatologist Prof Richard Wrangham.”

The Guardian’s conservative framing is both unrealistic and unhelpful. Because while it is unlikely that everyone will be persuaded to eat less meat anytime soon, studies show many people in the West have been reducing their consumption of meat and red meat specifically – for both health and environmental reasons. So it can be done. And again the question must be asked: Does the focus on in-vitro meat help or hinder the move to significantly reduce meat consumption and move to the vegetarian or vegan diet the world so desperately needs?

The media circus that surrounded the first public tasting of in-vitro meat clouds the fact it is, at best, irrelevant to combating the interconnected problems of climate change and the global food and water crises. At worst it is a red herring that makes it more difficult for us to see our problems clearly and act in an appropriate and timely manner. Like with GM foods, fracking and nuclear power we are being encouraged to look to and support a technological fix to a problem that we already have the technology to overcome. I’m not, I should note, against continuing research and development of in-vitro meat. One day it may well play a positive dietary role. What I am is sceptical of is a corporate-funded technology which makes big claims about saving the world when possible solutions already exist.

What is missing from the media hoopla, of course, is the kind of political analysis that understands fixing problems of this scale requires political will, otherwise known as popular pressure, and political solutions – a process that in-vitro meat will be largely irrelevant to.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. [email protected] and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.

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