Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Case Against Test Tube Meat

The Case Against Test Tube Meat

by Jeff Perz
On the 11th of August, 2005, the U.S. Associated Press reported that vivisectionists have succeeded in creating in vitro-cultured meat; the growing of non-human animal muscle cells on sheets or beads suspended in a growth medium, all without the physical body, brain or nervous system of any animal.[1] The story quickly spread to newspapers around the world, making a stop at the UK's The Guardian[2] and then being picked up by Australia's Sydney Mourning Herald[3]. All declared that in vitro meat presents the perfect or ultimate "conundrum for vegetarians" because it does not require the direct use of non-human animals or their being killed.1,2,3 Then Professor Stevan Harnad of the University of Southampton and Jon Camp of the animal welfare organisation Vegan Outreach chimed in, both advocating in vitromeat as a possible way of eliminating the suffering of non-human animals.[4] I am sure that this issue is being robustly discussed on various non-human animal activist oriented e-list serves around the world. Hot air aside, the actual Tissue Engineering journal article (co-authored by PhD. student Jason Matheny) that started it all contains several extremely disturbing facts. In vitro meat is immoral. I will argue why this is true in three separate areas; in vitro meat that could be created now involving maximum non-human animal exploitation, in vitromeat that could created now involving minimum non-human animal exploitation and in vitro meat that could be created in the future using techniques that do not involve any non-human animal exploitation whatsoever.
Maximum Exploitation Now
Matheny et al write that "embryonic myoblasts" (i.e undifferentiated cells from the fertilised egg of a non-human animal) or "adult skeletal muscle satellite cells" are needed for the process of in vitro meat production to begin.[5] Thus, in vitro meat production requires the creation of domestic animals who conceive the required fertilised eggs. This, in itself, requires the forced imprisonment and rape of the impregnated non-human animals. Domesticated non-human animals have been selectively bred for thousands of years and genetically engineered for decades to exhibit desired traits. In other words, they have been created by humans to be productive, docile and easily exploitable slaves. Sincein vitro meat production requires the creation of domestic animals, it perpetuates their slavery and this is immoral. When the fertilised eggs of the forcefully impregnated non-human animals are removed for use within in vitro meat production, this constitutes a further invasive sexual assault and theft. Or, if the alternative technique of stealing adult skeletal muscle satellite cells is used, this "requires the fish [or other non-human animal] to be killed."[6] This method is viewed as advantageous because it more closely mimics in vivo (from a non-human animal who was gestated in a womb, born, exploited and killed) meat.[7] Using cells from fertilised eggs, on the other hand, has the disadvantage that "considerable effort must be applied to force [the cells] to differentiate [into muscle-cells/meat] and cell yields from harvests are low."[8] Using skeletal muscle tissue from murdered non-human animals, however, has technical limitations that could only be overcome, in part, by making scientific advances in the (non-human animal derived) cell culture medium that is used in the process of in vitro meat production.[9] Currently, to increase the yield of the in vitromeat produced to a viable level - whether using fertilised eggs or skeletal muscle tissue - the cells must be placed in a medium that contains more muscle tissue.[10] Thus, more non-human animals must be killed regardless of the technique used. One medium used forin vitro meat production is fetal bovine serum[11], the procurement of which requires rape and forced abortion. Other cell mediums that show potential to Matheny et al are lipids (fats).[12] Moreover, "liver cells [from murdered animals] . provide growth factors necessary for cultured muscle (meat) production."[13] All of the above refers to the in vitrocreation of processed meat, and it is clear from the above that the research and development required in this involves vivisection being conducted upon self-aware, feeling non-human animals. Regarding the much more difficult task of creating unprocessed meat such as a "steak," a step towards solving the technical problems involved is using "a mix of cells to grow muscle tissue that had its own blood vessels. The human tissue was implanted into mice where they watched blood flow into the engineered muscle."[14] This vivisection procedure was designed to create human organs but Matheny et al suggest its application to in vitro unprocessed meat production.
Therefore, the production of in vitro meat involves the creation of domesticated non-human animals who are inherent slaves, forced confinement, rape and the assault and killing of non-human animals. For an excellent argument explaining why these practices are immoral, see Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? by Gary. L. Francione.
Minimum Exploitation Now
Although most growth mediums are animal based, Matheny et al note that other vivisectionists succeeded in using a growth medium made from maitake mushroom extract.[15] They imply that the use of plant versus non-human animal based mediums in the future solely depends upon the effectiveness of the medium being tested. So, if it turns out that plant based mediums are not maximally efficient or effective, they will not be used. None of this refers to the liver-derived growth factors that are still required for the process. Currently, in vitromeat production still requires fertilised eggs or skeletal muscle cells and all the domestication, rape, confinement and killing that these procedures entail, as described above.
No Exploitation Tomorrow?
Even if it were possible to create meat without the use of non-human animals who have been brought into existence for that purpose or any other - itself a dubious claim - getting to that stage would still require the exploitation of non-human animals and the research and development needed would involve lethal and painful vivisection. For this reason alone, the exploration and development of in vitro meat production is fundamentally immoral.
Consider that the reason why it is agreed that the Nazi hypothermia experiments - which involved dousing human animals in ice water, committing other horrors and measuring the results - were immoral is that the human victims of this vivisection had basic rights; the rights to life, freedom and bodily integrity, and the most basic right that underlies all these; the right not to be used as a mere means to the benefit of others. Decades after the holocaust, the Nazi research has been used to develop life-saving treatments for hypothermia.[16] The original research, however, was fundamentally immoral and should not have been conducted, even though this would have entailed that modern day hypothermia victims would of had a greater likelihood of dying. In short, the good end of saving lives is not justified by the immoral means of human vivisection because humans have basic rights.
Similarly, even if in vitro meat production that did not involve any non-human animals or their exploitation were developed in the future and the consumption of this meat resulted in the lives of non-human animals being saved, this good end would not be justified by the immoral means of vivisection. If this claim is rejected, then the claim that non-human animals should not be the victims of vivisection in order to cure human diseases must also be rejected.[17] In other words, proponents of the development of in vitro meat cannot consistently maintain that non-human animals have rights because the vivisection required for this development, as in the Nazi experiments, violates those rights. Therefore - for the sole reason that vivisection must be an integral part of the research and development of in vitro meat - pursuing it is inherently immoral and must be rejected outright.
Putting that aside for the moment, one of Matheny's co-authors notes that although the work of another vivisectionist "required the fish to be killed to get the muscle cells needed to start the process, eventually the process could be refined to allow the use of a cultured cell line or a biopsy so the donor fish could live."[18] Performing biopsies would require the wrongful exploitation and violation of basic rights of non-human animals. A cultured cell line, however, would require the death and exploitation of one non-human animal, but no future generations of non-human animals would be used. Harnad comments:
.I can say that as a vegetarian of 43 years' standing that any vegetarian who objects to [cloning and lab-growing meat cells] because it would still have been "seeded" from a living animal will have lost sight entirely of the moral reason for vegetarianism in the first place - not to do needless harm to feeling creatures.[19]
In Introduction to Animal Rights, Francione discusses the principle of causing needless harm or suffering in depth. After thorough and convincing argument, Francione ultimately concludes that the moral reason for pure vegetarianism (veganism) is, in the first place, to avoid violating the basic right of non-human animals not to be property, or not to be used exclusively as resources. It might be argued that, after the initial immoral act of killing and exploiting one non-human animal who "seeds" a cultured cell line, the subsequent use of that cell line would not be immoral. That is, the original non-human animal's basic rights were violated and this should be morally condemned and prohibited in the future, but the "single parent cell . could theoretically satisfy the current annual global demand for meat"[20] would not be self-aware or sentient and therefore have no interests[21] that a right could be used to protect. Similarly, although the Nazi vivisection conducted upon humans was absolutely unjustified and violated the basic rights of the victims, using the data produced from it now does not add to the killing, or violation of their basic right to life. In the same way, it might be argued that in vitro meat production and consumption under these conditions is morally justified. I disagree for the following reasons.
Although neither the case of (a) using Nazi hypothermia data, (b) a critically starving human eating the corpse of a non-domesticated animal who died of old age in a forest nor (c) producing in vitro meat in the way currently being discussed involve violating the basic rights of the original victims or causing them to suffer, there is a crucial distinction between cases (a) and (b) versus case (c). Namely, the benefit of using the Nazi hypothermia data or a starving human eating another animal who died of old age is life-saving whereas the sole benefit of producing meat in a world in which veganism is possible is the satisfaction of taste enjoyment. As argued in the previous paragraph, none of the three cases involve the violation of rights or causing individuals to suffer[22], and in this sense I agree with Harnad and Camp, but I nevertheless contend that the case of producing in vitromeat is immoral whilst the others are not:
Consider the example of an individual who collects Nazi memorabilia. The individual in question has posters, medals, flags and so on. Then, this racist collector has the desire to own and use a lamp made during the holocaust, a lamp made of human skin. Although acquiring and using such a repugnant lamp does not involve the violation of basic moral rights, does not cause the long dead to suffer and is not illegal, this action is nevertheless immoral, albeit in a weaker sense than the act of killing someone. This is so because the racist collector, through her or his actions, is expressing the idea or sentiment that the holocaust was acceptable. Considered within a historical and contemporary social context, when the collector turns on the lamp made of human skin, the collector is in some way condoning the oppression that occurred in the holocaust and is also communicating this condoning to anyone who sees the lamp being used. This remains true even if we modify the present example as follows. Suppose the collector is unable to acquire a genuine holocaust lamp. Instead, she or he gets an elderly relative, who provides informed consent, to agree to donate her or his body after death. The collector then uses the skin of the relative who died of old age to make a replica holocaust lamp. Even this modified example contains the same moral repugnancy of the original, and for the same reasons mentioned above.
On the other hand, the cases of using Nazi hypothermia data and a critically starving individual eating the corpse of a non-human animal who died of old age are very different than that above because, in addition to not involving the violation of anyone's basic rights, these two cases have the additional feature of saving lives. When the a life of a self-aware being - human or otherwise - is at stake then the moral repugnancy of using old data that was acquired through atrocities is overridden by the need to save a life. Likewise, the disgustingness of eating the corpse of a non-human animal who died of natural causes is justifiably overridden by the need to save a life. This is not utilitarianism because, as argued above, the repugnancy in question is a weaker version that does not involve the violation of anyone's basic rights: unlike the original victims, the data and the non-human animal who died of old age do not have any interests owing to their not being self-aware or sentient. Thus, there is no conflict between two or more right-holding parties who have competing interests. Very importantly, the life-saving information in the Nazi vivisection data could not have been acquired from any other source, and I am assuming that the critically starving individual did not have any plant food source. Without any other option, and without a conflict of interests between two or more sentient right-holders, the weaker moral repugnancy in these cases is overridden.
Conversely, in the case of in vitro meat production in a world in which veganism is an option, the weaker moral repugnancy is not overridden; the taste enjoyment of a human animal who eats meat is a trivial benefit compared to the saving of someone's life. Recall the example of the racist lamp collector who acquires the necessary skin from a donating relative and consider; the consumer of in vitro meat, through her or his actions, is expressing the idea or sentiment that current or past institutionalised exploitation and oppression of non-human animals is acceptable. Considered within a historical and contemporary social context, if someone consumes in vitro meat, she or he is in some way condoning the oppression of non-human animals that has occurred and is occurring. The idea that it is alright to eat meat is being conveyed. This, in the context in which real non-human animals have been and are being slaughtered by the tens of billions every year. Again, the same argument applies to the collector of Nazi memorabilia who invites her or his guests into the livingroom to find a glowing lamp made of human skin. This is why in vitro meat is necessarily - not just contingently - immoral, as is "freeganism"[23]. Although not fundamentally immoral in the sense that someone's basic rights are being violated and it ought to be illegal, in vitro meat production is nevertheless immoral even in the most implausible of future circumstances.
It might be objected that in vitro meat production would, in fact, save lives; the lives of the billions of non-human animals who are killed for food every year. These deaths, however, are preventable because humanity has the choice of going vegan. Recall that, in the cases of using Nazi hypothermia data and a starving human eating the corpse of a non-human animal who died of old age, there was no other option and therefore the weaker moral repugnancy in these cases was overridden. In the case of in vitro meat, however, there is a very viable choice: veganism. It might be further objected that, in the speciesist and misinformed minds of most of human animals, there is no other option but to continue to eat meat. This objection is unsound. First of all, humans can be helped to think critically for themselves and embrace a vegan lifestyle. Secondly, and very importantly, if computer models or some other method could have been used to save just as many hypothermia victims and just as soon, then using the Nazi data would have been completely unjustified and absolutely morally reprehensible.[24] Likewise, in a world in which veganism is possible, eating in vitro meat is always completely unjustified and absolutely morally reprehensible. Any society that would commit resources - involving time, obscene amounts of money and vivisection - to developing in vitro meat is also a society that views non-human animals as objects. Again, since vivisection is an integral part of the research and development of in vitro meat, pursuing the production of in vitro meat would seriously violate the basic rights of non-human animals and its future development must therefore be rejected now.
[1]"Scientists Grow Meat In A Laboratory," August 11, 2005,TheBostonChannel.comWCVB-TV,http://www.thebostonchannel.com/health/4838281/detail.html
[2]"When meat is not murder," Ian Sample, Saturday August 13, 2005, The Guardianhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/genes/article/0,,1548451,00.html
[3]"Scientists aim for lab-grown meat," August 15, 2005, Sydney Morning Herald http://smh.com.au/articles/2005/08/15/1123957975863.html?oneclick=true
1,2,3Ibid.
[4]"Few beefs over laboratory-grown meat," Tuesday August 16, 2005, The Guardianhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1549781,00.html
[5]P.D. Edelman, D.C. McFarland, V.A. Mironov and J.G. Matheny, "In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production," Tissue Engineering, Volume 11, Number 5/6, 2005, p. 659.
[6]Op.Cit., TheBostonChannel.com  For this quotation in its full context, see the final section of this essay.
[7]Op.Cit., Matheny et al.
[8]Op.Cit., Matheny et al, p. 660.
[9]Ibid., pp. 659-660.
[10]Ibid..
[11]Ibid., p. 661.
[12]Ibid.
[13]Ibid., emphasis added.
[14]Op.Cit., TheBostonChannel.com
[15]Op.Cit., Matheny et al, p. 661.
[16]Moe, Kristine. "Should the Nazi Research Data Be Cited?" Hastings Center Report, Vol. 14 No. 6, December 1984.
[17]Although I hold the view that most vivisection conducted upon non-human animals does not result in human diseases being cured, surely there are a few instances in which this has happened. To quote George Bernard Shaw, "If you attempt to controvert a vivisectionist by showing that the experiment he has performed has not led to any useful result, you imply that if it had led to a useful result you would consider his experiment justified. Now, I am not prepared to concede that position."
[18]Op.Cit., TheBostonChannel.com, emphasis added.
[19]"Few beefs over laboratory-grown meat," Tuesday August 16, 2005, The Guardianhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1549781,00.html
[20]Op.Cit., Matheny et al, p. 660.
[21]For example, the interest in not feeling pain and the interest in not being deprived of future experiences that would result from death.
[22]Some writers argue that it is immoral to use Nazi data. See the text that follows and note 24.
[23]The practice of supposed "vegans" eating animal products that have been discarded, especially in rubbish bins.
[24]Some hold the view that using potentially life-saving Nazi data is always fundamentally immoral. If this view were held, then consistency would require that - if a hunter killed a non-human animal and left the body in the woods - it would always be immoral for a starving third party to eat that body in order to survive. These views, and their opposites, are both consistent with all of the claims made in this essay.