In mid-November the world’s first lab-grown burger is due to be eaten at a press conference. Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist at Cardiff University, weighs in on the debate of ‘in vitro’ meat.
Costing €250k, this burger has been grown from cow stem cells in Maastricht, the Netherlands, by Professor Mark Post and his team. This is a radical new way to make meat – fundamentally different to how it’s ever been done before – and one we need to start discussing so we can get on top of the social and ethical issues.
Meat grown from stem cells
I am a sociologist at Cardiff University, and I have interviewed most of the people in the world who are trying to make in vitro meat. I want to understand how an unusual new scientific field comes together, and inform a debate on if, why, and in what form we want this ‘in vitro’ meat.
But first a word of caution, don’t get too caught up in the immediacy of this. This remains a very early stage technology and we are nowhere near having stem cell grown burgers in our supermarkets. The fact it costs €250k to make just one burger gives you an indication of how far there is to go.
Yet, I believe it is essential that we still take this seriously, to get the voice of interest groups and consumers heard from these earliest stages of development, so that their opinions stand a chance of shaping what happens as the technology develops. There’s no point in leaving these discussions until later.
In favour of in vitro meat production
Let’s start with the arguments for. Supporters of in vitro meat list numerous possible benefits, most based upon showing deficiencies in current meat production systems.
They note the world’s population could increase to 9.5 billion by 2060 with increasing demand for meat, and that current meat production practices contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, land, energy and water use. In vitro meat could, they argue, prove a much more sustainable alternative.
In vitro meat could also be a healthier meat, free from animal disease and antibiotics. It could also be a morally superior product, as far less animals are killed in its production. Other benefits include the potential for making innovative new meat products, and providing a meat source for astronauts in space.
But it is sensible for us to question whether these goals are deliverable, as many social and technical barriers remain.
Do we need in vitro meat?
To address global climate change the meat would need to be produced in significant quantities; tonnes and tonnes every day. Hypothetical models of this process suggest production on this scale would have much less impact on the environment than existing processes. But this remains, as I say, a hypothetical model. And then consumers would need to want to eat these tonnes and tonnes of meat. It is not clear if we will. Especially as initially it would probably be more expensive than regular meats, if it ever makes it to market at all.
Currently most of the people engaged in ethical debates about in vitro meat support the technology. But we must remember ethical issues do not just ‘exist’. They are articulated and argued for by groups working from different perspectives and backgrounds.
Those most engaged at the moment are a subsection of bioethicists and animal rights groups. Both are important groups, but other voices are currently missing. Prof Post’s November burger is likely to provoke more people into expressing their opinion, which means it’s time for us to start thinking about meat grown from stem cells. Do we need in vitro meat? Would you eat it?
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dr Neil Stephens, ESRC Cesagen, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences – all opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of Which?