In vitro meat and cannibalism

As the regular reader will know, we of Republic of Lagrangia are quite enthusiastic about in vitro meat. For non-regular readers, in-vitro meat is meat cultured outside the body of an animal, mostly in a lab. In order to do this, scientists have to collect stem cells from, for instance, a cow, which can be done though a biopsy. Since this does not require to kill the donor, some people consider in vitro meat as a more ethical alternative for regular meat.

Theoretically there no restriction on what animals can be used as potential donor for stem cells for the production of in vitro meat. Even meat from exotic or endangered species could be produced cheaply in this way. Practical considerations as availability of donor animals, and the demand for certain types of meat, will determine which meat will be produced.

There is no inherent reason why human stem cells cannot be used for the production of in vitro meat. And this worries some people. But why would this be wrong? If eating human is wrong, it’s mostly because we object to the killing of humans. Only, in vitro meat does not require the killing of the stem cell donors. Besides humans can, in contrast to other animals, give informed consent to such donation.

Republic of Lagrangia endorses classical liberalism as defended by John Stuart Mill. And a core idea of Millian liberalism is the so-called harm principle. People should be allowed to do whatever they want unless someone is harmed by such action. Given that people can voluntarily donate some tissue sample, and that no one is killed in the process; there is no way under the harm principle why cultured human meat would be wrong.

Although some people might object to the consumption of cultured human meat, we see no reason to prohibit people from voluntarily donating some of their own tissue for the production of human meat, or prohibiting people from buying such meat.

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45 thoughts on “In vitro meat and cannibalism”

  1. A thought I must say I agree with. It would be interesting though to say I ate a piece of JZ my good friend.
    And while on this topic, it is sad that people starve in this parts of the world because of dietary restrictions based on some religious book of dubious origin. There should be no malnourished kid when healthy meat can be produced in this manner.

    1. Though a vegetarian diet is not necessarily bad for health, provided you get all essential nutrients, dietary restrictions based on dubious religious claims do not make sense. There certainly good reasons not to eat some food, but simply doing so because some dude living centuries or millennia ago is not one of those.

  2. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem donating my cells. If other creatures provide their meat for me to eat, I don’t see why I can’t extend the same courtesy to them if it doesn’t harm me.

    1. No one should be forced to eat human meat, or to donate his or her cells. Personally I would try human meat grown in a culture, even if I should have to donate my own cells for it. Not because I am a cannibal, but because of curiosity.

  3. I think the fact that it’s a form of indirect cannibalism might turn off most meat lovers. Just a fact, most humans find the idea of eating other humans kind of disgusting, unless you’re Hannibal Lecter or part of an ancient culture that endorses the eating of one’s enemies.

    1. It’s true that many people find the idea of eating human meat disgusting, even if it is produced in a culture. On the other hand, it also fascinates many (other) people. From discussion I have had with many different people on this subject, I got the impression that a substantial number of people would support this idea.

      Besides the fact that many people find something disgusting, does not mean it is also wrong. There a lot of things I find disgusting, such as piercings and tattoos, but nevertheless I support people’s rights to do these things.

  4. In theory there’s nothing ethically wrong with the proposition and you would be hard pressed to run out of donors for the stem cells. I wonder if people would end up preferring a specific donor over another due to breading. “Hey, can I get 5 kg of leg of Jennifer and 6 kg of Brad’s Liver?”

  5. This is definitely a subject where I’m afraid to say my normally open mind wants to shut down and deliver a very immature, “eeeeew”. It’s not rational, I can’t give you an explanation for why I find it bothersome, but I struggled with the concept of cultured meat in the first place. The concept of cultured human tissue is just a bridge too far. Perhaps with time and exposure it may seem less disturbing to me, but for now, I’m glad its not an ethical debate I have to have.

  6. Roast mock human served up on a bed of lettuce, fava beans on the side and a nice little glass of chianti? Yum, yum. I’d say the same people who got stuck into chocolate covered ants a couple of decades ago when they were the fad would be the ones to endorse it.
    Since I found out about it I’ve felt that the mass production of invitro meat would be a great idea if it would help poverty stricken countries. I suspect, though, that if it became the norm, nobody would be bothered to farm livestock or farm fish or fowl and they would be extinct in a generation. Human beings tend to keep only what’s useful to them.

  7. I think my primary objection would be that I’m pretty sure this is how the zombie virus starts. However, a more nuanced issue would be the implied lack of dignity for human life that comes from the philosophical reductionism that lies behind this kind of pragmatism. That might have a more profound effect than you would at first assume, because dignity is a subjective experience of an objective value. And then the zombies.

    1. There is no reason to assume that a zombie virus can actually exist, and there is also no particular reason why in vitro meat would be any more a risk than other factors. The culturing of human meat in a lab does not compromise human dignity in any way. Would using human hair to make wigs also compromise human dignity? “Dignity is a subjective experience of an objective value”, this a contradiction of the first order.

  8. Interesting idea. I wonder about the wisdom of cannibalism with regards to communicable diseases. But I imagine that would be something which we would screen. Certainly avoids the ethical issues surrounding meat eating, even if it were to take a bit of getting used to!

    1. And here we cut to the heart of the matter: it’s a health risk. Like eating pork, or shellfish. If we were running out of options I’d consider it, but not otherwise. I’d much rather eat salmon and tuna.

      1. Given that we have used the oceans as a garbage dump for more than decades, and subsequently the oceans are heavily polluted; fish accumulate this poisonousness substances in their body over time. Therefore eating fish is a severe health risk.

        On the other hand, we can control whatever substances are used in culturing meat, hence in vitro meat would be less riskier than traditionally produced meat and fish.

  9. As some have said, I don’t see anything ethically wrong with the consumption of this human meat. However, there is some mental block–something in my brain telling me “nooooo!” But I do see it as an ideal alternative to our current system of animal consumption. Not only do we not have to kill animals, but we also have creatures that can give consent!

  10. I feel that this concept could perhaps be useful in times of need. However, would in-vitro meat be as sufficient as that which is developed naturally in a living creature? If the meat was suitable to feed, say dogs, a raw diet for less expense than killing the donor animal; that would be a positive alternative for those who purchase raw meat for their pets. I personally would never purchase such meat for any reason. That is my choice and not intended to impede on others views. I would not judge anyone for buying such a product.
    As far as the consumption of human flesh and said morality behind it… If there were a creature in existence which required only human flesh to survive (which there is not), and as humans we had use for such a creature; in-vitro meat would be a logical solution to feed said creature (ex. If we used some type of creature in farming to til a field perhaps, and that creature survived on humans. It would make sense for a farmer to donate stem cells).
    If one has no qualms with cannibalism, or “curiosity” as someone mentioned, understand the severe health consequences involved with the consumption of human flesh. Based on information and facts we do have, it is my belief that humans were not intended to feed upon one another. That is why there are plants and animals on Earth, and why we are the only “animals” on the top of the food chain. Are there humans living under the rule of any animal other than humans? No. I believe we were intended to work along side each other and survive together. Eating human flesh changes the chemical balance of the brain, in my opinion this happens to insure that we do not eat each other. There is more information on this available. I did not put the time in while writing this post to find more documentation. Happy feedings!

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/04/0410_030410_cannibal.html

  11. I’m a little uncomfortable with this sort of auto-anthrophagy, given the genesis of the whole JCD/BSE problem in the in vivo meat industry. A bigger concern, though, might be the breaking of the taboo– one day the carniculture vat fails, and there’s not enough hesitation about turning on Bob if the repairs are delayed.

    1. Your point about Creutzfeld-Jakobs disease and BSE is a legitimate concern. These diseases are caused by defective proteins, called prions, with turn the good proteins to defective ones. As we have seen these prions can transfer between (mammalian) species, therefore this issue is not concern specific for in vitro human meat, but a general one. Any meat culture should be inspected and be checked for such prions. Cultures which are contaminated should be destroyed.

      The failure of one carniculture vat, shouldn’t be a problem given that there would be multiple of such vats. Further such vat is actually quite simple: some tissue with the required nutrients.

  12. Well, in theory this is fine.

    However, in practice? There is no species barrier to protect you from any bacteria that colonize the meat. Human flesh also contains particles called prions, which quite simply cause dementia and insanity in people whom consume it.

    Cannibalism is what created the Mad Cow virus- Feeding cows the pureed remains of their fellow cow.

    Consider that before you bite into a Donner Party-Favor, eh?

    1. You make a legitimate point here. However, as I stated in a reply to another comment, any collected tissue sample and/or culture should be inspected for such prions. In regard to bacteria, in vitro meat cultures (of whatever species used) are grown in controlled environments; and hence the cultures can sterilized either with antibiotics or bacteriophages. However the concerns you stated, also apply to organ donation and blood-transfusions, numerous people have contracted HIV or hepatitis in this way (I am not aware whether prions can be transmitted in such way, but I guess so). Therefore organ and blood donors are nowadays screened for such diseases, and this would not be different for tissue donors.

      1. The main issue is that this creates a lot of extra work, when the entire point of cloned meat [As far as I can tell] is that with the proper set up it’s easier to grow meat in a vat then on the hoof.

        Using human flesh means that you have to be incredibly meticulous, and regularly screen for any infections in the culture because it’s a perfect vector for any malignant bacteria to hop onto. Human flesh cultures can be infected by any common human disease, too, wheras there’s a significant genetic hurdle between, say, humans and cows. That means that any bacterial cultures in the flesh would be a potential catastrophic threat, compared to the not-cannibalism option.

        That is not to say that creating perfectly sterile cultures of human flesh is absolutely impossible, but it would be a lot of work to go through for what would essentially be a novelty food- Especially given that, as I understand it, human flesh and pork have nearly identical tastes, and thus even the potential for an exotic new flavor to work with is gone.

        I’m more interested in seeing what Elephants taste like, honestly. Possibly sampling a cutlet of Japanese Salamander.

        1. The main issue is that this creates a lot of extra work, when the entire point of cloned meat [As far as I can tell] is that with the proper set up it’s easier to grow meat in a vat then on the hoof.

          The lot of extra work is not really that much more, but the main purpose of in vitro meat (the term “cloned meat” is somewhat an unhappy choice, since what is commonly known as cloning, somatic nuclear transfer, is not used here) is to reduce to amount of energy and food wasted by traditional waste production. The reason why the amount of additional is relatively low, is due to the fact that one muscle stem cell can produce 10,000 kg of meat, and only the original sample has to be checked.

          Using human flesh means that you have to be incredibly meticulous, and regularly screen for any infections in the culture because it’s a perfect vector for any malignant bacteria to hop onto.

          Bacteria will grow wherever they can get food, and if they will grow in a tissue culture, it is mainly because of the nutrients used to feed the meat tissue. The genetic hurdle is in case of bacteria quite irrelevant, and actually the opposite might be true, given that human-based bacteria have co-evolved with humans. Cow-based bacteria might be more risky, since they might be harmless in cows but can be dangerous in humans.

          Since for common human diseases many people have already some type of resistance, the transfer of diseases from non-human animals to human, zoonosis, is a greater risk for the evolution of a catastrophic epidemic.

          That is not to say that creating perfectly sterile cultures of human flesh is absolutely impossible, but it would be a lot of work.

          This is also relative, given that human meat will be cultured in the same factory as other meat cultures. In order to reduce the risk of contamination, the whole factory would be subject to strict sterilization procedures. Further only a small sample of tissue has to be sterilized before production.

          Especially given that, as I understand it, human flesh and pork have nearly identical tastes, and thus even the potential for an exotic new flavor to work with is gone.

          I have heard that, and if it’s true than there’s indeed no need for growing human meat in vitro (and since I don’t like pork, I wouldn’t like human meat either). Or one could argue there would be no need for growing pork in a lab (though I expect culturing pork will be less controversial). But this raises an interesting question, which I have asked myself before: does it actually matters what animal you use for meat culture, from the perspective of taste? I don’t know the answer, but I can imagine that because different animals have (slightly) different proteins, and hence can have different. On the other, however, the taste of meat is partially determined by fat.

  13. It is strange for I too wrote about this. I believe this will be very common in the future. I find it strange but since my wife is a vegan, I have come across many who want turkey, esp. during Thanksgiving to be accepted by my wife as a tofu turkey. It really has no meaning to my wife but we are so engrained in the culture of eating turkey that we make tofu like a turkey. Tofu is tofu.

  14. So I could, essentially, sit down with my friend and partake of myself or of them, and then go about my day?
    Would I be primal enough to compare who tasted better and sample some off their plate?
    Ooooo there are some places science should just not go, and consider me consenting to, “No Way, Not Me” 😉

  15. Meat grown from human cells will not be for the first generation of in-vitro meat eaters for sure. Lab-made dairy is more likely to “go human” first as we already know that it’s more suitable for human consumption. Once people get used to the idea of lab grown animal-based food, there is no reason why meat can’t be produced from cells that are more suitable for human consumption, including human, if that’s case. I personally believe that at that point we will be consuming much more plant-based protein that they demand for meat will not be nearly as high. Either way, it’s all good (for the animals and the planet) and part of healthy discussion. It might seem weird to us today, but in the future it will be gross to eat something just walked and breathed and had kids yesterday.

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