In vitro meat, new technologies, and the “yuck” factor

“In vitro meat” is gradually becoming a reality. It holds great promise, notably considering that billons of animals are slaughtered for food every year, often after spending miserable lives in factory farms, and that the current production of meat contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases. In spite of those facts, it seems highly unlikely that most meat-eaters will agree to give up meat anytime soon (though the success of the “meat-free Mondays” initiative in a number of different places should be saluted), yet they might well prove more willing to switch from traditionally produced meat to in vitro meat, if the latter were as healthy (or even healthier), reasonably priced, and tasted the same as the former.

Discussions of in vitro meat in the media most often cite the so-called “yuck factor” as a major obstacle to its general acceptance: i.e. the instinctive revulsion that many people feel at the idea of eating “unnatural” meat grown in a petri dish. I am inclined to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects of overcoming that obstacle: “unnatural” meat substitutes have already become popular among vegetarians, and some meat-eaters do consume them as well occasionally. Although in vitro meat should bear even more of an uncanny resemblance to the real thing than those substitutes (which might be why some people are revulsed by the idea), I would expect it to find success if issues of health and taste can be adequately dealt with. Now what if the yuck factor were to prove more of an issue than I anticipate? I believe the following points deserve to be emphasized:

1)    Our negative gut reactions often do not track any facts that should be granted any significance for our decision-making.

I have argued elsewhere that our gut feelings of revulsion towards certain behaviors do sometimes seem to have normative significance, and that we should not dismiss such reactions out of hand as irrelevant. Nevertheless, the revulsion elicited by the arrival of certain new technologies is often irrelevant from a normative point of view, and this very much applies in the case of in vitro meat. Of course, if someone’s instinctive reticence towards such meat were grounded e.g. in the concern that it might pose health risks, it would be legitimate. But if such concerns could be addressed, any revulsion one might still feel at the idea of eating something that had been produced in the lab and was therefore “unnatural” would not be tracking anything of any significance. In vitro meat would share those properties with many other inventions that are highly desirable and beneficial, such as life-saving medicines. Of course, medicines usually do not purport to look or taste like anything that exists “naturally”, but this again is of no significance whatever – chocolate eggs for instance do have such a purpose, yet this is hardly a reason to find them repugnant.

 

2)    Some of our negative gut reactions have been distorted by powerful economic and social forces.

I am inclined to think that if people were made keenly aware of the production process on which the meat that they consume depends on, their gut feelings would lead them to favour in vitro meat over real meat. The fact that the yuck factor is currently biased against in vitro meat is mostly due to the fact that modern society, influenced by the economic interests of the meat industry, encourages an almost complete disconnection in people’s minds between the poor treatment and killing of animals, and the sight of meat on their plate. For most meat-eaters (and this was my case when I used to eat meat), a steak or chicken breast fillet is simply something that somehow appears, as if by magic, on a supermarket shelf, ready to be cooked and enjoyed. Yet suppose that when eating out, people had to choose between two types of restaurant, each having various TV screens distributed throughout the premises. The first type serves traditional meat and, accordingly, its TV screens are continually showing the various stages of the process through which that meat was produced. The second restaurant only serves in vitro meat, and its screens show how it was grown in the lab. My guess is that very few people would choose to eat in the first type of restaurant. They would simply feel too uncomfortable and disgusted at e.g. the sight of pigs being confined to crowded, insalubrious warehouses, before being taken to the slaughterhouse to be stunned (sometimes improperly) and bled to death, one after the other. On the other hand, watching scientists manipulating muscle cells in a petri dish (even if they sometimes had to throw away one of their preparations after making a mistake) would, I think, be much less likely to make diners want to run out of the restaurant, or lose their appetite.

These two points also apply to other cases where the yuck factor tends to prevent many people from embracing a new technology that promises great benefits (examples include therapeutic cloning and, on a more futuristic note, cryonics).

So if you are a meat-eater who finds the idea of eating lab-grown meat repulsive, remember that (a) you are absolutely justified in being concerned about how healthy this meat will be and whether it will be tasty enough, but if your feelings persist even after these concerns have been resolved, then they don’t deserve to play any role in your decision-making; (b) if you hadn’t been taught to focus exclusively on the pleasurable qualities of meat and to keep the various dark aspects of the meat industry out of your mind, it is most likely that your gut feelings would tell you to prefer in vitro meat to conventional meat.

Originally posted on the “Practical Ethics” blog of the University of Oxford: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/.

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About Alexandre Erler

I'm a philosopher currently based at Anatolia College/ACT in Thessaloniki. I did my doctorate at the University of Oxford, UK, on the topic of human enhancement and the so-called objection from authenticity. I am interested in figuring out, through the use of reason, how we can make the world a better place, if necessary challenging some received ideas in the process. This blog offers my (fresh?) perspective on a number of topics that I regard as significant, as well as the occasional fun trivia. Constructive comments welcome.
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