Times were, being a vegetarian was rather simple. Either you didn’t agree with animal suffering (which could prompt the question – what if death could be painless?) or you held a belief about lack of human right to take life*. The first case could always be justified by responding that most animal farming involves suffering, and all animal deaths involve psychological trauma and pain, therefore, abstaining from eating meat was a necessary ethical choice. The second position, involving a belief in lack of absolute rights, was harder to question – a vegetarian who does not believe that humans have a right to take life is unlikely to be shaken from that position, given that it has probably arisen from an intuitive belief in right to life.
So far, so good. But not anymore. As scientists get closer to the goal of producing meat in a laboratory, vegetarians are having to question from whence their feelings of unease originate. After all, meat grown in a lab has not suffered, or experienced an unpleasant death. It has not even been alive** to have a right to life, or to have it taken away. In short, vegetarians should be rejoicing. Truly moral meat will be available for us all and it will have been produced causing less environmental damage than the normal rearing of livestock. We should be happy, so why aren’t we?
Indeed, most of us can’t even justify our concerns about food being produced in a laboratory, as many vegetarians eat Quorn which is also lab produced. Instead, some might want to argue that there could be a positive moral outcome from creating in vitro meat, as it could generate food security that is becoming increasingly threatened by our population explosion, extinctions of other species, and climate change.
It could also be argued that food from labs could have a positive impact on famine, although this seems doubtful to me. It is widely known that when a famine takes place it is not necessarily due to a food shortage or crop failure, but to uneven resource distribution. Even if meat produced from a lab contributed to food security, it would take huge, worldwide policy changes, from government and businesses, for it to have any impact on feeding the world’s hungry. When it comes to world diet, meat is a luxury item, not likely to be philanthropically flown to famine areas, no matter how it has been produced.
But despite these speculative, tentative benefits, I think there are moral reasons to be concerned about the availability of in vitro meat. For a start, it will become competition for the livestock industry, which could cause a drop in meat prices and lead to deterioration in farming conditions. In this way, buying in vitro meat could indirectly contribute to animal suffering. But the other issue that concerns me is whether lab meat could play a part in our continual divorce from nature. At a point where it could be critical for us to reassert some of our ties with nature, and to start to appreciate our interlinked dependence on it, we could be headed down a road that will lead us further away from it.
So, therein lies the new vegetarian conundrum. To eat in vitro meat as though it is a gift from the future, a benefit of modern times that might aid our growing population; or, to hold back reluctantly, concerned about indirect negative affects. I certainly fall into the second camp, but it is definitely true to say that the development of processes such as this, moral issues, like being a vegetarian, stand to become considerably more complex.
*For ease I have excluded a couple of other reasons for vegetarianism. Those who don’t eat meat because they don’t like the taste are unlikely to feel any different about in vitro meat, and those who don’t consume meat because they regard the approach to animals as objects of utility as wrong can be seen to fall under both of my two types of vegetarians.
**I’m using the term alive to denote sentience and other qualities we deem ‘higher life forms’ to have – not suggesting that the growing meat is not, technically, ‘alive’.