The New York Times Magazine recently held an essay contest for its column “The Ethicist”, inquiring “Why Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?” The deciding panel chose five finalists and one winner, Jay Bost, a vegan turned conscientious meat-eater, who argued that there are ethical and unethical ways to eat meat just as their are ethical and unethical ways to eat other foods.
Vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike comprised the other finalists, chosen by judges including Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Michael Pollan. One finalist’s essay has stuck with me: Ingrid Newkirk, a vegetarian for 40 years, wrote that there is no ethical way to eat meat, but that there will be soon: lab-grown meat, a food she is looking forward to eating guilt-free upon its launch this coming fall.
What struck me about Newkirk’s essay was first,the strange concept of producing, marketing and eating meat grown in a laboratory, and second, that a vegetarian would be interested in eating this meat. Newkirk writes in her essay that she currently chooses to eat meat-free in order to to subvert animal cruelty and to protect her health and the environment. Both the healthfulness and the environmental impact of lab-grown meat is arguable, but what is really striking about the prospect of lab-grown meat is that people seem to be taking it for granted that it is an ethical animal product simply because it does not involve the killing of an animal.
On what grounds is lab-grown meat ethical? Is it the end that measures the ethicality of a food product, and not the means? The more I think about it, the worse the prospect of lab-grown meat seems in comparison to raising an animal for slaughter, especially since, as Bost writes, there are both benevolent and cruel ways to farm an animal, and with lab-grown meat, there is only one way – taking genetic material from an animal, an animal that has not consented to such a process, an animal that might not even live in the future, because what would be the need?
On what grounds is lab-grown meat ethical? Is it the end that measures the ethicality of a food product, and not the means?
The goal behind lab-grown meat is to do right by animals. But how is extracting an animal’s DNA, growing it, packaging it, and making money off of it doing right by an animal? Did the animals have a forum and consent to this genetic trade in order to preserve future lives? Or is lab-grown meat a genetic technology just as human-indulgent as cloning one’s cat or dog, a way for people who care about animals in very specific ways to have their cake and eat it too? We can’t ethically compell someone to give another person their bone marrow, or even their organs after they have died, so how can anyone grace the notion of taking an animal’s genetic material for consumption, not even for medical purposes, with the word “ethical”?
Animal husbandry and the eating of meat are complex issues, and growing meat in a laboratory for human consumption is just not the easy solution people might want it to be. It is animal commodification to the extreme, a gloss over of a Frankensteinian approach to food issues, animal rights, and human concerns.
So to Newkirk, I say if you haven’t eaten meat for 40 years, there is no justifiable reason for you to start now with a lab-grown burger. If you don’t believe in eating meat, then don’t eat meat. But if you do want to eat meat and you wish to do so ethically, get a hunting permit, raise and slaughter the animals yourself, or take care in knowing where your meat comes from, be confident that you are supporting the best possible life for the animals you will eat, and above all, respect and value that animal for the bounties it, and only it, can give. Taking this responsibility in one’s food choices is one way to show care for animals and the environment; eating lab-grown meat shows that we’ve cheated out that tricky ethics bit and we no longer have to care.