I wrote this essay a few years ago for a futurist publication after I gave a talk about the future of in vitro meat – now smartly rebranded as clean meat.
Lately clean meat has been in the news because it’s making huge strides in development and market uptake. For example, chicken clean meat is now sold in Singapore. Chicken, an Israeli test kitchen, is feeding free clean meat to diners in exchange for feedback.
I strongly endorse clean meat- it seems the best way to reduce animal suffering available. But, I have always been concerned that our evolved disgust sensitivity to food, especially meat, might ipede its development and uptake. Some of the specifics of clean meat, like its production (e.g. fetal bovine serum) and price, are from 2015- but the core message about the costs of conventional meat production, the benefits of clean meat uptake, and the potential psychological obstacles are very relevant today. I also discuss clean meat in my recent animal ethics and evolutionary psychology chapter.
Read my essay below:
The future of food- A roadmap to in vitro meat
Written September 2015
“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” – Winston Churchill
In vitro or cultured meat is the “cultivation of food grade animal tissues in carefully controlled environments” . In vitro meat holds the promise of replacing slaughter based meat production. In this piece I will review the current ethical, environmental and sustainability problems with meat as it is now, and then review the technical, psychological and market based obstacles to the uptake of this technology.
Problems with conventional meat production
Meat and animal products of all kinds are especially problematic from an environmental, sustainability and ethical perspective compared to other plant based foods. Meat is environmentally costly to produce requiring more water and land in addition to being one of the major producers of greenhouse gases and water pollution . Meat also feeds fewer people with the same resources. Estimates of inefficiency vary but the same amount of grain produces 2-5 times fewer calories through cattle and 10 times fewer calories through grain fed cattle than when eaten directly  . Lastly, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the animals used for food are sentient and animal suffering, may, from a utilitarian perspective be one of the most pressing concerns for our age . Consider the trillions of animals killed for food each year, lives that vastly outnumber human lives. Even if you ascribe each of them a fraction of the moral importance you would for human suffering, this still amounts to a significant moral issue.
All of these problems withstanding, the future of food does not seem to be vegetarian. Vegetarianism, though increasing is still only a few percentage points of the population . Many people who identify as vegetarian eat fish and chicken  and lapsed vegetarians outnumber current vegetarians . Although it seems that most humans can thrive on a vegetarian diet, humans almost certainly evolved eating meat  and seem to be motivated to eat meat specifically. For instance, human taste buds appear to be sensitive to a flavour abundant in cooked meat called umami . Moreover, in many places in the world there is a special word for “meat hunger”  as distinct from other kinds of hunger. The developing world, either imitating rich industrialized nations or actualizing their evolved taste preferences for savoury high calorie foods are eating more and more meat and other animal products .
The history of modern civilization has shown that despite all our technological innovation we still do not have a technology of behaviour . The best way to change these outcomes is not to change behaviour but to create animal products that are either indistinguishable or tastier than the originals, that can be made on a massive scale, that are cheaper or comparably priced and offer similar nutrition to current animal foods. While there has been a massive rise in vegetarian meat alternatives this does not seem to have made much change in people’s actual eating habits nor created new vegetarians. A shift toward making actual animal products by non-animal means such as Muufri, dairy milk made without cows  and a new startup which will make egg whites without hens  is taking off. Will in-vitro meat be successful soon?
Obstacles to the development of in-vitro meat
There are various technical obstacles to the development of in vitro meat that is able to match conventional meat in price, palatability and availability.
In vitro meat is usually skeletal muscle progenitor cells, that is, cells that can regenerate into more cells albeit only for a limited period of time . These cells are suspended in a medium that can nourish them on a scaffold. Because there is no vasculature through the cells, the cells are usually very thinly layered [15,16].
At the moment, price is preventing in vitro meat from having any possibility of meeting market demand. It’s massively expensive to create the structure for in vitro meat to grow, to keep it at the correct temperature and inundated with nutrients for proliferation and free from contamination . A Dutch scientist at the forefront of this research, Mark Post, had an in vitro burger debut in London that cost about $330,000 to make . As for palatability, most in vitro meat that is currently being grown is currently not cleared for human consumption although Post’s burger was underwhelmingly said to taste “almost like a burger” .
In my view, two major obstacles prevent in vitro meat from being ethically viable. First, in order to obtain cells to grow one must biopsy animal tissue although this will involve some discomfort, the animal will still live. This is not a huge obstacle in and of itself. If technology improves muscular cells will proliferate enough that one biopsy could produce 20,000 tons of cultured beef  but at the moment though, these cells only regenerate for a few months and in very thin layers requiring repeated animal biopsies . The above figure also ignores the other major price and ethical problem involved in in vitro meat. The substrate used to grow most cell cultures is fetal bovine serum harvested from pregnant cattle . This is not only very expensive to collect, requiring pumping blood out from the fetus, it also requires killing both the mother and the calf foetus. It is unclear how many cows went into producing the substrate for the world’s first in vitro burger. However, a non-profit supporting in vitro meat, New Harvest  and other scientists like Nicholas Genovese  are optimistic that non-animal media will soon be available.
Obstacles to uptake of in vitro meat
One of the main obstacles to uptake of in vitro meat may be disgust. Disgust is thought to have evolved to reduce the chance of coming into contact with potential pathogens, especially those that are orally incorporated . Meat, more than other foods, has been evolutionarily associated with pathogens and food taboos are more often leveraged against meat than other foods . Food preferences crystallize at an early age  and people feel disgust about foods that are unfamiliar to them. Thus, the meat from animals on factory farms produced currently may seem more palatable and less disgusting than the alternative and less familiar in vitro meat.
In order to drive demand for an in vitro meat whose production is as free of animal derived products as possible vegetarians should at least be willing to try it. However, in two small surveys it was found that the majority of vegans and vegetarians (71%) were unwilling to try in vitro meat [24,25]. A larger survey of vegetarians found a similar result, with 73% unwilling to eat it . In my survey, it seemed that the stipulation that in vitro meat would cause no more animal death than plant foods did not change attitudes against in vitro meat at all, leaving disgust as a possible cause; indeed 32% of vegans explicitly cited disgust as a reason they would not want to try it . There is some research indicating that moral vegetarians are more disgust sensitive overall . however, it is disappointing that this group is likely not going to be leading the way to “invitrotarianism”. More problematic is that without demand from a sector of the public that is most likely to think animals matter morally (vegetarians and vegans), producers of in vitro meat may not develop the technology to make in vitro meat really cruelty free. Unfortunately, it also seems that those who eat the most meat are the most disgust sensitive  So, potentially those who could make the most impact by switching from meat on the hoof to in vitro meat may also be squeamish about trying the new product in the absence of major incentives.
Overall, in vitro meat is an incredibly promising new technology that can have major impacts on the environment, sustainability and reducing the suffering of nonhuman animals. The technology for creating a market viable cultured meat is, by many estimates, going to be coming up in the near future. However, we will also need to make sure there is research being done to improve the demand for in vitro meat. It would be a shame if this technology with the capacity to reduce so much suffering were limited by a mostly irrational aspect of human psychology.
1. McLaren ME. Cultured Meat: A Beneficial, Crucial, and Inevitable Nutrition Technology. 2014; Available: http://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1527&context=student_scholarship
2. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, Haan C de, et al. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. [Internet]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); 2006.
3. Bittman M. Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler. The New York Times. 27 Jan 2008. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html
4. Singer P. Animal Liberation, rev. ed. New York: Avon. 1990;165.
5. Pinker S. The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes [Internet]. Penguin UK; 2011.
6. Cooney N. Veganomics: The Surprising Science on Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom. Lantern Books; 2014.
7. Herzog H. Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat? | Psychology Today [Internet]. [cited 11 Aug 2015]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201106/why-do-most-vegetarians-go-back-eating-meat
8. Wrangham R. Catching fire: How cooking made us human. Basic Books; 2009.
9. Lindemann B, Ogiwara Y, Ninomiya Y. The discovery of umami. Chemical senses. 2002;27: 843–844.
10. Fiddes N. Meat: A Natural Symbol. Routledge; 2004.
11. Kearney J. Food consumption trends and drivers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences. 2010;365: 2793–2807. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0149
12. Skinner BF, Skinner BF, Skinner BF, Skinner BF. Beyond freedom and dignity. Springer; 1972.
13. Pandya R. Milk without the moo. New Scientist. 2014;222: 28–29.
14. Buhr S. Clara Foods Cooks Up $1.7 Million In Funding To Make Egg Whites From Yeast Instead Of Chickens. In: TechCrunch [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://social.techcrunch.com/2015/07/09/clara-foods-cooks-up-1-7-million-in-funding-to-make-egg-whites-from-yeast-instead-of-chickens/
15. Datar I, Betti M. Possibilities for an in vitro meat production system. Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies. 2010;11: 13–22.
16. Lab Meat: Can in vitro meat save the animals? With Nicholas Genovese, David Pearce, and Jordi Casamitjana | THE VEGAN OPTION radio show and blog [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://theveganoption.org/2012/04/03/lab-meat-nicholas-genovese-david-pearce-jordi-casamitjana/
17. Lab-grown beef taste test: “Almost” like a burger. In: Washington Post [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/lab-grown-beef-taste-test-almost-like-a-burger/2013/08/05/921a5996-fdf4-11e2-96a8-d3b921c0924a_story.html
18. FAQs – Cultured Beef [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Archived here
19. Sentientist. Will in vitro meat become cruelty free? In: Sentientist [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://sentientist.org/2013/08/05/will-in-vitro-meat-become-cruelty-free/
20. Cultured Meat FAQ – [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://www.new-harvest.org/cultured-meat/faq/
21. Tybur JM, Lieberman D, Kurzban R, DeScioli P. Disgust: Evolved Function and Structure. Psychological Review. 2012; doi:10.1037/a0030778
22. Fessler DMT, Navarrete CD. Meat Is Good to Taboo: Dietary Proscriptions as a Product of the Interaction of Psychological Mechanisms and Social Processes. Journal of Cognition and Culture. 2003;3: 1–40. doi:10.1163/156853703321598563
23. Birch LL. Development of food preferences. Annual review of nutrition. 1999;19: 41–62.
24. Would you eat replicator meat? [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Archived here
25. Lab Meat: Survey Results | THE VEGAN OPTION radio show and blog [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: http://theveganoption.org/2012/05/16/lab-meat-survey-results/
26. YouGov | No British demand for fake meat. In: YouGov: What the world thinks [Internet]. [cited 12 Aug 2015]. Available: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/08/05/no-demand-fake-meat/
27. Rozin P, Markwith M, Stoess C. Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science. 1997;8: 67.
28. Fessler DMT, Arguello AP, Mekdara JM, Macias R. Disgust sensitivity and meat consumption: a test of an emotivist account of moral vegetarianism. Appetite. 2003;41: 31–41.