Cultured meat seems gross? It’s much better than animal agriculture

The world is in the grips of a food-tech revolution. One of the most compelling new developments is cultured meat, also known as clean, cell-based or slaughter-free meat. It’s grown from stem cells taken from a live animal without the need for slaughter.

Proponents hail cultured meat as the long-awaited solution to the factory farming problem. If commercialized successfully, it could solve many of the environmental, animal welfare and public health issues of animal agriculture while giving consumers exactly what they’re used to eating.

Despite this, the public is uncertain about cultured meat. Scientists and high-profile supporters, including investors like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, are pushing for broader adoption, but it’s difficult to sell the public on new food technology – case in point, genetically modified food.

As a moral psychologist, my research explores people’s perceptions of cultured meat, both the good and the bad. Below I discuss some of the top reasons people say they don’t want to eat cultured meat, compiled from opinion surveys, focus groups and online comments. But I’m optimistic that champions of this new technology can alleviate the public’s concerns, making a convincing case for consumers to embrace cultured meat.

‘Cultured meat is not necessary’

While there is increasing awareness of the downsides of factory farming, this knowledge has still not spread to all meat consumers, or at least is not reflected in their purchasing behavior. Factory farming supports what many consider cruel and restrictive practices where animals raised in such farms are subjected to extreme suffering, and estimates suggest that over 99 percent of U.S. farmed animals live on factory farms.

Animal agriculture is also inefficient. Growing and feeding an entire animal for only part of its body is inevitably less efficient than growing just the parts that you want to eat.

Factory farming degrades the environment and contaminates local land and water, in addition to emitting around 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The use of antibiotics in farming leads to antibiotic resistance, which could have devastating consequences for human health globally. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that over 70 percent of medically important drugs were sold for use in animal agriculture.

Some people who believe farmed meat is problematic would prefer a plant-based food system. Despite recent hype around veganism, the number of people who don’t eat animal products remains extremely low. Only 2 to 6 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan. And only around 1 percent of adults identify as vegetarian and report never eating meat. This figure shows little change since the mid-1990s, despite the ongoing activism of the animal rights and environmental movements.

I’d argue that the plant-based solution to factory farming is not a feasible outcome for the foreseeable future. Cultured meat might be. Individuals can still choose to eat a plant-based diet. But for those who are unwilling to give up meat, they can have their steak and eat it too.

Farm animals won’t be turned loose to fend for themselves. AP Photo/Maciej Zych

‘I’m worried about the animals and farmers’

Some people express concern about the fate of chickens and cows, imagining them abandoned to die or released into the wild.

The time frame for cultured meat renders this consideration moot. Even by optimistic estimates, large-scale production is likely still several years away. As new processes are adopted, the demand for farm animals will slowly decrease. Fewer animals will be bred, thus the animals at the center of these concerns will never exist.