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The philosophy of “cultivated meat”

Philosophy of “cultivated meat”
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philosophy-of-“cultivated-meat”

“My favorite animal is steak” , the American author cynically cites Fran Lebowitz in one of his books. The joke reveals us in our hypocrisy of people who on the one hand melt in a broth of jujubes for cute puppies on Instagram, but on the other they cannot resist a tender hamburger with fries . However, this hypocrisy has an expiration date. In the not too distant future, in fact, we will be able to sink our jaws into a succulent beef burger without any kind of moral hesitation.

I am referring to meat grown , that is meat grown from the muscle cells of live animals (which remain alive and well) . It is therefore not the vegetable meat produced by companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat but biochemically indistinguishable meat from that coming from a slaughtered animal.

It is a potentially epochal invention, from a historical watershed . This is not only because it is a very tasty opportunity from an economic point of view (the global meat market is worth 1.7 trillion Dollars) or because it would save 56 billions of animals per year from the slaughterhouse, but also because intensive farming is very polluting and , according to the geek philanthropy of the Effective Altruists (very fashionable in and around Silicon Valley), closing them would be one of the most effective ways to combat climate change.

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While vegetable meat is already widespread (in the United States, one can buy a Beyond Meat hamburger sandwich even from McDonald's), the cultivated meat has never been sold publicly . However, there are startups that swear that within a couple of years the first burgers of cultivated meat will appear on the menus of some very innovative and very expensive restaurant and those of Just , a Californian company, even say that their cultivated chicken nuggets are ready to go on sale, only the ok of the regulator is missing. Beyond legal issues, the problems that hinder the marketing of cultivated meat are mostly technological in nature. Between nutritive means to feed them and materials that help transform them into tissue, growing muscle cells in a bioreactor is a complex affair , especially if you want to do it on a large scale. Then one thing is to create a hamburger or a chicken nugget, which are heaps of pressed meat, another is to want to create the elaborate fabric of a cut of beef. In the world of cultivated meat, Florentine steak is a sort of Holy Grail . While engineers and entrepreneurs struggle with these problems, we men of letters can focus on another aspect that makes cultivated meat a potentially epochal invention: its philosophical relevance.

We often have the impression that philosophers have always mulled over the same issues since Plato's time. Here, meat grown as the object of speculative investigation certainly allows you to ask yourself new questions and to analyze old problems in a new way . “ Food for thought “, the British would say. Between ethics, metaphysics and the philosophy of language, it will perhaps be through a hamburger grown in a bioreactor that we will be able to understand something more than the human condition.

Let's start with the ethics , which is perhaps the branch of philosophy with which cultivated meat has the most explicit link. Many ethical vegans give up consuming animal products because they believe that Homo Sapiens has no right to breed and kill living beings belonging to other animal species. Philosophers like Peter Singer call it “speciesism,” a term that evidently refers to other forms of discrimination such as “racism” and “sexism,” and define it as unjustified attribution of a different moral status to human beings compared to other animal species . Now, one could object that it is self-evident that humans are superior to animals but an anti-speciesist would reply that 1) the morally right action is the one that guarantees the greatest benefit for the largest number of sentient beings (classical principle of the so-called “ethical utilitarianism”) 2) animals are sentient beings and prefer “not to suffer” to “suffer” 3 ) consequently, intensive farms are immoral. In short, Singer and acolytes argue, on a moral level, the difference between humans and other animals is completely arbitrary . After all, there are more differences between an oyster and a chimpanzee than between a chimpanzee and us. But by growing it in a bioreactor, we can eat meat without too many worries about our right or not to kill other animals. It would be a real new moral identity, different from that of the vegan and the classic carnivore.

And did everyone live, including animals, happily ever after? Not so fast. Philosophy is a hydra, and cutting off the head of one problem, another immediately appears. For example, there are those who argue that solving an ethical ruin with technology does not really solve it but only eliminates it, preventing us from confronting its moral implications. A bit like when Instead of loosening the Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great cut it clean.

To want to have fun, yes it could then paradoxically argue that, by cultivating it, one could ethically eat any type of animal meat, including human meat . This cannibalism 2.0 would not lead to health risks, would not cause anyone suffering and would not lead to horrific desecrations of corpses. A few muscle cells would be enough, and voila, a nice hamburger of human flesh. Although instinctively repugnant, this sort of ethical cannibalism is quite interesting from a philosophical point of view. As evolutionist biologist Richard (Dawkins) pointed out, would be a fun case of “consequentialist morality” (something is right or wrong depending on the consequences it entails) versus absolutism of the “wisdom of disgust “(A negative intuition, in this case a feeling of disgust, can be enough as evidence to interpret something as wrong or evil). The moral, however indigestible, is that rationally it is easier to justify the ethics of eating human meat grown in a bioreactor than the ethics of consuming meat from farmed animals .

MOSCOW, RUSSIA SEPTEMBER 27, 2019: Producing cultured meat in a lab at the Ochakov Food Ingredients Plant (OKPI). Vyacheslav Prokofyev / TASS (Photo by Vyacheslav ProkofyevTASS via Getty Images)

Anthropophagy aside, this strange invention called “cultivated meat” we don't even know how to … call it. The majority of startups that are working to put it on the market seem to be inclined to define it as “ cultivated ” (“ cultured ”in English) a name that on the one hand reflects the actual production process and on the other seems to stimulate favorable responses in consumers. Sin of sensationalism, the English-speaking media often call it still “ lab-grown ” (“grown even if a production plant looks more like a brewery than a chemical laboratory) or “ artificial ” (as if there was something “ natural ” in intensive farming). In Italy, it is usually defined as “ artificial ” or “ synthetic ,” terms that make everything except mouth water and more than the food of the future, they recall the Carneplastic of the improbable futurist cuisine.

But these are mostly marketing problems. From a philosophical point of view, the first term of the expression, “meat”, is even more interesting . As Professor Cor van der Weele , professor of philosophy at the Dutch University of Wageningen – the Oxford of gastro-science – points out, the idea that “alternative meat should resemble meat as we understand it now has an uncertain future ». “When the cultivated meat is no longer associated with the idea of ​​raising and slaughtering animals” writes Professor van der Weele, “will it still be compared with the meat obtained in this way? Could an excessive resemblance to meat obtained from slaughtered animals become a weakness for people who do not want to be reminded of their old carnivorous habits? ” In short, must the cultivated meat resemble in all respects the meat as we understand it today or could it become something else in the future?

In some ways, van der Weele's questions reminded me of the ancient paradox of the Ship of Theseus , a mental experiment on the metaphysics of identity that was already circulating at the time of Heraclitus and Plato. In short, the paradox tells that the ship of the mythical Greek hero Theseus was kept in a port as a museum piece. To avoid deterioration, its parts were replaced as the wood roted until even a piece of the original structure remained. Was it the one that had kept Teseo's ship or not? And, if it was no longer the same ship, when exactly had it stopped being? In our case, is the meat still cultivated “meat”? And if we change certain attributes as proposed by Professor van der Weele, when will it stop being?

As you may have noticed, cultivated meat then entails a further paradox . On the one hand, we want it to remain as similar as possible to traditionally understood meat, on the other we want it to be as different as possible. It must remain similar because otherwise the consumers, finding something on the plate that they cannot recognize, would end up prey to the “yuck!” (the wisdom of disgust) and would refuse to eat something that appears “against nature,” even if rationally they know it is perfectly healthy and ethical. In short, the cultivated meat would seem to be baked by Frankenstein's laboratory and would incur a public relations disaster similar to that in which GMO crops have incurred.

At the same time, this new meat must be as different as possible from that coming from intensive farms, meticulous polluting sheds where animals make a life of hell and then come killed. In this regard, Professor van der Weele writes that, in the focus group she conducted, the scenario that was most attractive to consumers imagines a future in which the meat will be grown in small factories and that some “donor” animals of the cells used will be kept on farms open to the public, symbolizing the “naturalness” of the cultivated meat.

As far as I'm concerned, the fact that the meat grown is “against nature” seems to me a point in its favor. Leopardian understood, Nature is nothing but a set of mechanistic laws of cause and effect that lead to the inevitable death of every being (in Leopardi's words, “ a perpetual circuit of production and destruction “) . Here, the cultivated meat would break precisely that cause-and-effect relationship, freeing us from the need to kill animals to eat their meat . In short, we would be the first predators in evolutionary history who learn to live peacefully with their prey. Now, these lucubrations could go on forever and I would risk putting too much meat on the fire. So I close by saying that the hope is that, in a few years, we will be able to say without a shadow of moral hypocrisy: “my favorite animal is the cow and my favorite dish is the steak” . The relationship between the two things, and consequently our relationship with the planet, will in fact be under the banner of coexistence rather than overpowering.

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