Dynamist Blog

Synthetic Meat: The Reaction

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The reaction to my WSJ article on cultivated meat has been fascinating and disturbing. Some people in the business have lectured me not to use the terms synthetic, as in “synthetic biology,” or lab-grown, lest I scare off customers. (Technically, meat is only lab-grown in the research stage, since scaling up requires something more like a brewery.) They are, in other words, squeamish about acknowledging the artifice involved in their own products—exactly what interests me!

Then there’s the knee-jerk right-wing reaction, represented by the comments on the WSJ site. When the WSJ accepted my article but said they wanted me to write the shopping feature first, I considered sending the synbio essay to another paper. But rereading the piece, which I’d written with the WSJ in mind, I decided it it was implicitly tilted right and would need revising to get into a left-of-center outlet. Since I didn’t have much time for revisions, I left the piece at the Journal.

The core of the article consists of these paragraphs:

A century ago, “a chicken in every pot” was an ambitious political slogan. It has long since become an everyday reality. Americans will consume nearly 100 pounds of chicken per capita this year, according to the National Chicken Council, up from around 67 pounds in 1992, when chicken first surpassed beef.

Behind chicken abundance is the efficient production that critics call factory farming. Bred for maximum meat in minimum time, confined to crowded sheds, and subjected to assembly line slaughter and disassembly, chickens destined for mass consumption endure short, unhappy lives. Cheap chicken also exacts a human toll. Although automation is improving conditions, chicken processing may be the country’s worst job: smelly, noisy, bloody, cold and injury-prone from slippery floors and repetitive motions. Plus the pay is low.

Most Americans aren’t about to give up chicken, but we’d rather not dwell on where it comes from. In the not-too-distant future, however, the trade-off between conscience—or ick factors—and appetite may no longer be relevant. Instead of slaughtering animals, we’ll get our meat from cells grown in brewery-like vats, with no blood and guts….

Synbio executives talk like animal lovers and environmental activists. But synbio is still a form of engineering, a science of the artificial. As such, its ethical appeal represents a significant cultural shift. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, businesses large and small have emerged from the conviction that “natural” foods, fibers, cosmetics, and other products are better for people and the planet. It’s an attitude that harks back to the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics: The natural is safe and pure, authentic and virtuous. The artificial is tainted and deceptive, a dangerous fake. Gory details aside, the “factory” in factory farming makes it sound inherently bad.

Synthetic biology upends those assumptions, raising environmental and ethical standards by making them easier and more enjoyable to achieve. It could help reverse what the writer Brink Lindsey has dubbed “the anti-Promethean backlash” that began in the late 1960s, defined as “the broad-based cultural turn away from those forms of technological progress that extend and amplify human mastery over the physical world.” Synthetic biologists are manipulating atoms, not merely bits.

Anti-Promethean attitudes are still culturally potent, of course, with their own intellectual ecosystem of publications and advocacy groups. “Cell-cultured meats are imitation foods synthesized from animal cells, not meat or poultry that consumers know,” pronounces Jaydee Hanson, the policy director for the Center for Food Safety. The activist group is lobbying the U.S. government to require that lab-grown meat carry off-putting labels like “synthetic protein product made from beef cells.” A neutral term like “cultivated meat” should satisfy most people, however; or the industry could push for the tendentious “cruelty-free” favored by cosmetics makers.

This is a story about market-driven progress! Abundance is good!! The anti-Promethean backlash is bad! “Cruelty-free” is tendentious and the Center for Food Safety is the bad guy. Those are all right-of-center tells.

Or they used to be. I was naively stuck in the 20th century.

Back then, when I hung out with ideologues more than I do today, people on the American right liked technological innovation and market competition. They celebrated ingenuity and entrepreneurship. They might predict that a given product would fail or choose not to buy it—that’s the system, after all—but they weren’t affronted by the mere existence of for-profit approaches to social or environmental issues. They weren’t insulted by the idea that technology might alter attitudes by changing costs.

Now, everything is personal and I, who write as a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress, am read as a woke propagandist.1

Take the comment was from one Alan Kelman. It’s my favorite because he is so, so deluded about both my household income and my eating habits: “I won’t consider eating this stuff until Ms. Postrel, Bill Gates, John Kerry, and their fellow Davis/WEF dirrrtbags give up their super prime filet mignon, primo lobsters, and free range poultry. Apres vous Alphonse.”

As my husband pointed out to me, it is true that I am more likely than this guy to be invited to Davos. But I’m also more likely to win an Oscar—in the sense that a probability of 0.0000001 percent is greater than a probability of 0.000000001 percent.

The best argument against the development of cell-grown meat is that technocrats believe that anything good must be mandatory, especially if the good thing claims to help the environment. So if someone invents cell-grown meat, government mandates will soon follow. We therefore shouldn’t encourage alternatives to the status quo lest we be forced to adopt them. It’s the same argument we hear from people who believe that saying cities should allow property owners more flexibility about what they build on their land is tantamount to banning single-family homes. This culture-war form of the precautionary principle is as bad as every other form. It’s a prescription for stasis.

The other thing that seems to worry the right-wing critics is the argument that ethical standards will change. Mike Wickerham comments:

So, I'm unethical for eating meat? Who gets to decide this? Is there some committee somewhere that determines what is ethical because it is what they think? Who are these supreme beings, these god-like entities greater than man, greater that 10,000 years of human civilization that suddenly determine that eating an animal is unethical.? I'm not sure how the rest of the readers feel about these self-righteous peddlers of their own determination of what is good and right: But for myself, I would be banned from commenting on WSJ again if I suggested what these people should go and do to themselves. Merry Xmas.

Contrary to this view, ethical standards evolve in a bottom-up way. They aren’t simply imposed, by me or anyone else. Their evolution is influenced not only by cultural ideas but by economics and technology. Authorities may try to impose ethical standards or to hold them still over time (see: the Taliban and women’s education), but standards do shift. To take a simple example, for 10,000 years of human civilization, child labor was completely normal; it still is in some places. It gradually vanished as people got richer and investing in children’s education made more economic sense than putting them to work. We now generally view child labor as unethical—not because that’s an eternal truth but because we can afford to. As noted in my article, even infanticide, which Christians always considered wrong, declined in Europe when preventing pregnancy became easier and raising children more affordable.

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