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In vitro meat and human diversity

If in vitro meat is developed to the point where it's commercially viable and doesn't require the ongoing exploitation of actual sentient creatures to produce, I see no moral problem in eating it. I would count it no different from soy burgers, margarine, Oreos, or any other industrially-produced food item. By the time such a product is on the market I imagine I will have been meatless for long enough that I'd find eating it merely personally unpleasant, though I'd make an exception to try in vitro human*.

I find it interesting, though, that the debate over in vitro meat is always framed as making concessions. In vitro meat is presented as a sort of sop to incorrigible carnivores, a way to accommodate the people who say "I see all your points about the horrible suffering and exploitation that meat production involves, but on the other hand bacon is tasty." It's understandable that vegans would feel reluctant to let these people "win," to effectively admit that they can't, and don't have to be, won over to see that they can be perfectly happy and healthy eating plants. Offering them in vitro meat seems to concede that they had a point about the imperative tastiness of meat.

But when I think of in vitro meat, I don't think primarily of incorrigible carnivores (many of whom, I imagine, would be reluctant to let vegans "win" by admitting that animal suffering or rights should factor into their eating decisions even if they get to keep eating meat). Nor do I think of vegans who stick with it but still sometimes crave animal flesh. The first thing that comes to my mind is people whose bodies don't cooperate with a purely plant diet. Both vegans and omnivores have an unfortunate tendency to universalize the human body, with blanket declarations that people either can or can't be healthy without animal products. In reality, our needs vary. The vegan universalizing position is closer to true than the omnivorous universalizing assumptions prevalent in modern Western culture. However, some people, because of the way their bodies handle (or can't handle) certain forms of protein or vitamins, find it extremely difficult -- or even impossible -- to maintain a reasonable standard of well-being without consuming animal products, even under optimal socio-economic conditions. (And some people's bodies go the opposite way, finding it hard to subsist on animal products.) In vitro meat solves the mismatch between these folks' bodily demands and the interests of the potential foodstuffs available in their environment.

*Perhaps some enterprising company could get the readers of "odd news" columns all a-twitter by offering to grow you an in vitro steak made out of your own cells.


Blogger fancycwabs said...

Technically, all food that isn't home-grown or produced by (non-sentient) robots exploits some sentient creature, be it the producer or the consumer.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

I don't follow.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

My guess is that in vitro meat would serve primarily low-income people who would like to eat more meat but can't afford it. Based on the experience of any other industrially produced food, in vitro meat is likely to be less healthy and far cheaper than regular meat. Regular meat would probably serve higher-end clientele, so it would probably become more organic to satisfy health concerns.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Neil Sinhababu said...

I too would like to try in vitro human.

I'd even eat the meat of some eccentric person who wanted others to eat him after he died, assuming that he had healthy and high-quality parts for eating. Most people, I imagine, are grossed out by this.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious about what a slab of me steak would taste like. If it could be produced so it looked like it came from a dead animal and not myself, I'd be able to bring myself to it, I think...
I now have a buzz in my head after reading Alon's post that wants that idea to be part of a sci-fi novel, but Brave New World used that sort of thing already :-9

9:09 AM  

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