Today, a vegetarian in Singapore might be forgiven for strolling up to the counter of a pop-up curry restaurant and ordering a plate of spicy rice with chicken. Thanks to the startup Good Meat, cultivated meat — grown from the cells of a living “donor” animal — has become a way for conscientious eaters to enjoy chicken guilt-free. Soon, American diners may be able to do the same, after lab-grown chicken breast from Berkeley-based Upside Foods was cleared by the FDA.
Unlike commonly available meat substitutes like Beyond Burger, cultivated meat is made of ... well, meat. It has the exact same molecules and the exact same taste as the burger you know and love (or it will, once perfected). But instead of being harvested from a living, breathing animal — one that can feel pleasure and pain, cares for its young, and is likely more intelligent than your toddler — it’s designed in a lab and cultured in vats. The process doesn’t require killing animals or keeping them in captivity. Cells are taken from a pasture-raised animal, then grown in a nutrient-rich medium.
Cultivated meat, in other words, may allow us to consume what we crave without the moral costs.
As professors of moral philosophy, we celebrate these developments — and we think everyone who cares about animal welfare, the environment, or public health should, too. We believe most people grasp on some level that eating meat from factory farms — where the vast majority of it comes from — is wrong. But meat is a delicious, nutrient-dense food, central to many cherished cultural traditions. So we rationalize away or ignore our qualms.
Most people genuinely enjoy eating meat and our research suggests the craving leads them to justify meat consumption by underrating the psychological capacities of animals or otherwise downplaying their mistreatment. They might sense that eating meat is wrong, but in the absence of a tasty (and cheap) alternative, wishful thinking and willful ignorance help maintain the status quo. The big promise of cultivated meat is that it can not only satisfy our culinary desires but also free our conscience. Without the incentive to rationalize factory farmed meat, more and more people will be able to appreciate the moral gravity of modern animal agriculture. In other words, lab grown meat can allow us to admit to ourselves what we knew all along — that modern industrial farming is awful for animals and for the planet.
Even die-hard carnivores have difficulty stomaching the idea that animals as sensitive and smart as our dogs or cats — tens of billions of them each year — are tortured and killed. Still others balk at supporting an industry that emits approximately one-sixth of global greenhouse gases. Once viable alternatives to factory farming exist, people can more readily lean into these convictions.
A major obstacle is the fact that factory farms currently receive tens of billions in federal subsidies every year that artificially reduce the price of cheeseburgers and fried chicken, while shirking the serious environmental and public health costs. Unless we can financially level the playing field, “real” meat might remain cheap enough that some consumers still choose it over cultivated meat. After all, how much cheaper can you make a 99 cent burger?
The political power of agribusinesses will crumble only if most consumers come to view consuming factory farmed meat as akin to wearing mink pelts or watching dog fighting. Then citizens will demand that politicians cut federal subsidies, pass laws requiring humane treatment of animals, and force agribusinesses to confront the true costs of their product.
Projected shifts in demand have already motivated Tyson — the largest poultry producer in America — to invest in Upside Foods. As ethical alternatives become more economical, we hope the moral tides will shift as well, providing more support for the regulation of industrial farms, like California’s Prop 12, which passed in 2018. Such legislation will make products from factory farms more expensive, allowing cultivated meat to enjoy a more competitive price point.
Ordinarily, people think that a moral revolution must come first and then change will follow. But in many cases it’s just the opposite. Technological innovations can make it easier to do the right thing. In the 21st century, the availability of attractive electric vehicles is leading people to give up their gas-guzzling cars and admit that combustion engines should be replaced with batteries powered by renewable energy.
Likewise, if we embrace alternatives like cultivated meat and change the way we eat, more of us will be free to condemn factory farming and challenge the corporations that profit from it. We’ll lose nothing — and we’ll be protecting the planet and its inhabitants.
Victor Kumar is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boston University, director of the Mind and Morality Lab, and coauthor of A Better Ape. Josh May is an associate professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of Neuroethics. Send comments to email@example.com.