Lab-grown meat and vegetarianism

Laboratory-grown meat has been in the news again lately. With headlines such as Could vegetarians eat a ‘test tube’ burger? (BBC) and Meat without Murder (Vegetarian Times), at first glance it looks like it could be great news for vegetarians. However, a recent online poll by the Vegetarian Society has shown that less that 7% of vegetarians would be happy to eat lab-grown meat.

Why, when offered a chance to eat meat from a source that didn’t involve killing an animal, do the majority of vegetarians say no? Is it because they (as they are often accused) like being faddy eaters? Or because they want to be different or special? Of course not. To answer that question you need to look at some of the most common reasons for being a vegetarian.

Animal cruelty and modern farming methods. In theory, you could eat lab-grown beef while the cow it came from is still alive. With the potential for one animal to produce much more than its own body weight in meat, it’s possible for far fewer animals to be kept for the meat industry while still producing the same amount of food. But note that I said fewer animals, not none. Livestock would still need to be kept in order to provide the stem cells needed to “grow” the meat, and if they’re kept in the same horrendous conditions they are now then it’s not much of an improvement. It still supports an industry that many vegetarians are not comfortable with.

Environment. Research has shown (BBC again) that lab-grown meat has less of an environmental impact than regular farmed meat. But until it can be proved that it has less of an environmental impact than a healthy plant-based diet, those vegetarians who cite environmental concerns are unlikely to be convinced to eat it.

Health, Religion and Dislike. Three pretty obvious reasons that probably don’t need any elaboration.

People who infer that lab-grown meat is intended for vegetarians have misunderstood the intention of creating it. The planet isn’t big enough to support 7 billion (and counting) omnivores. The current method of meat production is inefficient and this research is being carried out as a possible substitute for people who currently eat meat. Maybe if they can create meat that tastes as good as the real thing, is cheaper, and is proven to be safe it might catch on. Of course a much simpler solution would be to encourage people to eat less meat or become completely vegetarian, but is that realistic? Only time will tell.


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