Synthetic Meat Will Change the Ethics of Eating
The Wall Street Journal , December 23, 2022
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. In November, that science-fiction vision came a crucial step closer to reality when the Food and Drug Administration gave its OK to the slaughter-free chicken from Upside Foods, a San Francisco-based startup originally known as Memphis Meats. The company must still work with the Agriculture Department to establish inspection procedures and win labeling approval. It plans to first offer the meat to high-end restaurants.
Upside Foods is one of a host of startups using cutting-edge biological techniques, known collectively as synthetic biology or synbio, in search of more environmentally friendly, less ethically fraught foods and other materials. The customer is “anyone who loves to eat but really cares. They care about animal cruelty, or they care about the future of our planet,” says Anne Gerow, a spokeswoman for Perfect Day, founded in 2014 by two self-described “struggling new vegans.” To make “animal-free dairy” products, Perfect Day genetically tweaks microflora so they excrete whey just like that found in milk.
These vat-grown products are different from the plant-based meat substitutes sold by companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Upside’s chicken is chicken; Perfect Day’s whey is whey. The cells or proteins are the same, just produced in a different way—through human ingenuity rather than natural growth. (Impossible Foods uses synthetic biology to produce heme, the molecule that gives beef its distinctive color and taste, but its meat alternatives are mostly made up of soy proteins and vegetable oils.)
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.
Typical consumers care mostly about taste and price, and early taste results are encouraging. I haven’t tried Upside Foods’ chicken, but I’ve sampled Wildtype’s sushi salmon, grown in a similar way, which is now awaiting FDA approval. I’ve also eaten ice cream and flavored cream cheese made with Perfect Day’s whey. All tasted good. Reviews of Upside’s chicken are positive: “The most surprising aspect was that there was no surprise—the chicken tasted just like chicken should, only more so,” wrote Time’s Aryn Baker, noting that supermarket chicken tends to be bland, “more a texture than a taste,” because breeders care more about quick growth than flavor.
Selling cultivated meat at a competitive price poses a tougher challenge. Wildtype’s salmon, which initially cost the equivalent of $400,000 a pound, is down to $20-25 for two pieces of nigiri, or about $250 a pound. That’s still pricey—high-quality salmon can run $150 a usable pound—but the trend is in the right direction. Knowing the difficulties, Wildtype deliberately picked an expensive product to compete with. Matching chicken prices will be much harder, which is surely a reason that Upside Foods is starting with high-end restaurants whose customers aren’t too price-sensitive.
Barring a new backlash, the long-term trajectory seems certain. Within a generation, vat-grown meat may be not merely common but normal. Within two, it could be morally imperative. Economics and technology can transform ethical expectations and practices. The lower the cost of virtue, the more willing people are to embrace it. Infanticide dwindled in Europe as condoms spread and living standards rose. By offering kinder alternatives that don’t sacrifice taste or tradition, synthetic biology enables more ethical living. It reinvigorates the ideals of technological progress in the material world. Bring on the slaughter-free kung pao.