Artificial meat is happening and it cannot be stopped. When a Dutch breakthrough was first reported in 2011, it was the result of a year-long research endeavour that cost Sergey Brin, co-founder of google, €300,000. The first artificial meat burger was then eaten in London in 2013, and currently dozens of labs are working on the technology around the world.
Artificial meat is seen by those who recognize the immorality of factory farming, but are not willing to adopt an ethically vegan lifestyle, as the solution to a big dilemma: How can I be logically consistent and ethical without giving up on my particular dietary habits?
On a grander level, the claim is often made that the introduction of artificial meat will make the transition into a society in which animal rights are respected easier. According to these voices, it is much easier and more efficient to get people to start eating artificial meat than to encourage them to replace their current consumption of animal flesh with plant foods or other meat analogues. If we assume the unnecessary killing of sentient creatures to be ethically indefensible, then a move over to artificial meat indeed seems like an effective solution. The more people eat artificial meat, the fewer animals will need to be bred and killed for human consumption.
However, there are several problems with this perspective, across various fields. I will not be talking about possible health, economic or environmental concerns here, but focus exclusively on the ethical implications of artificial meat itself.
A major issue lies in the fact that a consumer friendly version of ethical meat is simply not yet available, and probably won’t be for quite some time. Prices for artificial meat are still way too high, and the rigorous testing that will be required before releasing lab-grown meat onto the market will undoubtedly be huge. We could be speaking about decades here, and the appeal to artificial meat as a solution to our ethical dilemma seems to result in a kind of moral laziness: ‘Don’t do anything to reduce the suffering of animals in the here and now, don’t worry about animal rights and veganism, in a couple of years all our problems will be solved through science and technology.’ But what about the mean-time?
Perhaps most importantly, the transition into a culture consuming artificial meat will not actually signify a real shift in ethical values. Whilst individuals will indeed be able to make an ethical decision between eating real meat and eating artificial meat, this decision will depend entirely on the fact that an alternative to meat, which tastes exactly the same, is actually available – otherwise, in the case of many ethically disinterested individuals, the decision to stop eating real meat would not have been made. Is an ethical decision, when it is only made under the condition of extreme convenience, really a relevant ethical decision?
Imagine, for example, a future society in which robotic children are built for child abusers. The machines won’t be sentient, and real children will be spared. But in no way would this mean an ethical evolution in the child abuser, who would still maintain the same pathological mind-set, but would only express it in a different, victimless form. Can we call this moral progress? On part of the victims, absolutely, but on part of the perpetrator, nothing has really changed and the potential for cruelty and violence remains like a ticking time bomb.
This begs the question as to what will actually happen in a situation where the artificial meat technology becomes unavailable (for whatever reason). We are talking, after all about an ethical shift, if you could call it that at all, which would be completely dependent on market forces. The creation of artificial meat is a difficult, biotechnological process, which cannot be reproduced by laymen. Put away the economic mechanism of production, and the apparent ethical shift disintegrates. Imagine a massive, world-wide power-outage in an increasingly interconnected world, disrupting the facilities manufacturing artificial meat. Without a true change in the public ethic, people would quickly crave that what they are used to and revert to their old habits.
There are thus several issues associated with artificial meat, but mainly it seems to retard and even trivialize serious ethical engagement with one’s actions. As of right now, artificial meat is a kind of ethical fantasy, a hypothetical solution to our problems, into which serious engagement with the consequence’s of one’s behaviours can be banished. Its advocates are really saying that conscious beings only deserve not to be harmed and killed under the condition that it is absolutely easy not to do so, and frankly, the concerns of non-humans deserve more attention than that.
All in all, I still find that that the artificial meat technology will do more good than harm for the animal rights movement. The very act of giving people the choice between two biologically identical products, with radically different moral implications, will encourage people to revaluate their ethical standards and to think critically about where their food comes from.
The artificial meat technology, thus, is exactly that, a technology. And any technology is only as good as the moral worldviews by those guiding it. The animal rights movement should embrace artificial meat, and make sure that the public is properly educated not only about why they should eat artificial and not real meat, but also why they shouldn’t eat real meat and other animal products. And most importantly, it should continue to educate people about what to do until such technologies even become available in the first place.
The problem with artificial meat is thus not so much with the technology itself, but with its advocates. Artificial meat will come to play a significant role in animal rights activism as a tool for getting people to think about their ethical decisions; merely as a substitute for real critical engagement with the effects of one’s action on others, however, it might end up slowing down authentic moral progress. Let’s use it to the benefit of the animals, and not to their detriment.