Producing and commercializing cultured meat — meat produced by in-vitro cultivation of animal cells — is one of today’s most hyped scientific and technological challenges.
Dozens of startups around the world, generously backed by VC funding, are competing to hit the market with the Holy Grail of the food industry: meat produced without slaughtering animals.
But the quest to actualize lab-grown meat isn’t just opening up unprecedented technological possibilities. It’s also posing new moral conundrums and cultural challenges.
Should vegans embrace cultured meat? Will meat grown in the lab alienate us from nature even more? Is it cannibalism if we eat lab-grown human meat? And could lab-grown meat at one point become something entirely different from traditional meat?
To address these issues, I reached out to Dr. Cor van der Weele, who is a professor of humanistic philosophy at the University of Wageningen, sort of the Oxford of food innovation.
I asked Professor van der Weele — who also spoke at our event on the Future of Meat we organized at TQ — to help me untangle a few of the possible moral and cultural implications of cultured meat.
New moral identities
First off, Professor van der Weele highlights how several studies found that many meat eaters share concerns about meat and factory farming with vegetarians and vegans.
Despite their shared concerns, however, meat eaters have different ways to cope with these moral qualms. According to Professor van der Weele, many studies, for example in the field of consumer research, associate lack of behavior change with indifference while she thinks that this attitude would often be better described as “strategic ignorance”.
In a paper she co-authored with social psychologist Marleen C. Onwezen, Dr. Cor van der Weele argues that many consumers who were previously labeled as “indifferent” to the moral implications of eating meat do care about the issue but decide, consciously or unconsciously, to strategically ignore it in order to avoid conflicting moral tensions.
For them, cultured meat might represent a new moral opportunity and the possibility to form a new moral identity.
A renewed relationship with nature
Unnaturalness is a theme that often comes up when people start to think about cultured meat. For some critics, it is an important objection.
Author and micro-farmer Simon Fairlie, for example, argues in his 2010 book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” for organic food and a reduction of meat consumption but writes off cultured meat as a continuation of factory-produced protein that, converging with genetic engineering, will lead to further estrangement from nature for humans.
However, Professor van der Weele suggests that growing meat in a lab might actually improve our relationship with animals and nature. After all, what’s more unnatural and alienating than intensive animal farming?
In a study conducted with Clemens Driessen, one scenario that emerged from one of the focus groups was called “the pig in the yard.” In this scenario, cultured meat is made in small local factories using cells from animals kept in small yards. This speculative production process, which combines cutting-edge technologies and old traditions, led to enthusiasm among the participants in the focus group, also among the ones who previously were ambivalent about cultured meat and expressed doubts about its unnaturalness.
Significantly, they also often deemed this scenario “too good to be true.” And, as Professor van der Weele notes, they might well be right.
After all, it’s easy to imagine that, if meat grown in a lab is ever to become successful, it will most likely be thanks to large companies able to scale the technology and disrupt the meat industry.
But is that the only option? What can be the role of farmers and their cultural heritage in this new meat industry 2.0?
Far from leaving them to their destiny, Professor van der Weele is undertaking a new research endeavor to try and understand their experience as they see their industry being disrupted. Might it perhaps be an opportunity for them, instead of merely a threat?
And that’s why, on a side note, van der Weele doesn’t particularly like the term “clean meat”, used by large institutions like The Good Food Institute to describe cultured meat. “It’s unnecessarily insulting towards farmers,” she explains.
The meat of Theseus
“The Ship of Theseus” is an ancient thought-experiment that goes like this: “Suppose that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in battle has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece. As the years go by, some parts are replaced because they begin to rot. After a century, all the parts have been replaced. Is the restored ship still the same object as the original?”
I was reminded of this paradox when Professor van der Weele highlighted that “the assumption that meat alternatives need to resemble meat has an uncertain future.”
At first, I was a bit skeptical: isn’t the main point of meat alternatives (both plant-based and lab-grown) to be just like meat, the same way the ship of Theseus’ custodians wanted to preserve its identity?
But in one of her papers, Professor van der Weele raises some relevant points: “When meat-like products are no longer associated with raising and slaughtering animals,” she writes, “will they continue to be compared to meat? May resemblance to meat become a weakness for people who don’t want to be reminded of their old meat-eating habits?”
We started replacing parts of the meat industry because they were rotting with the aim of preserving “the original object”, meat. But maybe, one day, we’ll realize that with them we can create something entirely new, not yet imaginable. As if the custodians of the ship of Theseus found out how to make a plane out of the ship.
Wanna help the field of meat alternatives grow? Consider donating €3 or more to ProVeg Nederland, is the Dutch branch of one of the largest and most impactful organizations working in this space 👇
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Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.
Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.
We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based.
📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)
Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.
If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.
That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.
Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world.
At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.
Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.
✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here.
I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).
Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future" over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.
The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.
Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).
Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.
If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.
Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h.
The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.
A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.
Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible.
However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion."
Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."
However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.
In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.
Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters.
The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.
Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.
The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.
So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.
This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.