A hard look at systems that keep us alive: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi

Should I give up eating meat? It’s a question I grapple with every once in a while.

Is it right to kill animals for sustenance when plant-based alternatives exist? Is it right to participate in a system that breeds living things at an industrial scale only to eventually slaughter them? The cruelty inherent in the meat business is well-documented. There is much evidence as well now to prove how the industry has contributed to the degradation of the environment and the climate crisis.

It appears the moral case for giving up meat is a clear-cut one. But I have been unable to. Perhaps I am morally frail.

Such debates will end soon, a friend posited a few days ago. He pointed to developments in labs around the world, including in India, where artificial or synthetic meat has been in the works for a few years.

Technicians take muscle and tissue samples from an animal and work on it to bulk it up until it resembles real meat. The outcomes of their work have started hitting shelves and could soon be part of the mainstream. Such produce is also called Clean Meat because there is no animal slaughter involved, and it does not damage the environment.

An early sample of clean meat was presented to American journalists in 2013. Back then, it was horribly expensive, at $300,000 for a burger patty. Since then, the technology has improved exponentially, production costs have declined dramatically, and it is now an affordable proposition. Most reviews have it that clean meat tastes good as well.

That is why private equity investors are chasing entrepreneurs who in turn are at work trying to build synthetic-meat companies. They believe there are many people like me who feel conflicted and would switch to these alternatives if they were made available. It sounds like a no-brainer. But it isn’t.

I grew up eating meat and the thought of giving it up has been on my mind for ethical reasons. But what about people who grew up in vegetarian homes? How might they feel about synthetic meat? To find out, I ran a poll on Twitter. The results had me stumped.

Half the respondents (I asked that only vegetarians respond) said they wouldn’t even consider eating synthetic meat. A little over a quarter were enthusiastic about the idea; the rest hadn’t thought about it and couldn’t decide one way or another.

What explained the majority’s unwillingness? The answers sit across a spectrum. Those who subscribed to a religion such as Jainism, for instance, said that eating broccoli and even imagining that it was chicken was considered sinful. Synthetic meat was therefore taboo.

An atheist who grew up on vegetarian food said to him it wasn’t about ethics. The idea of consuming anything that resembled meat felt abhorrent. He even gave up experiments with soya chunks for this reason.

I decided to dig a little deeper and came across some interesting ethical conundrums in a 2014 paper titled The Ethics of Producing In Vitro Meat, by biomedical ethicists G Owen Schaefer and Julian Savulescu, published that year in the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

If we are to think of synthetic meat as not really meat at all, they argue, then what’s to keep us from adopting synthetic cannibalism? Human flesh could be created in a lab, for consumption, never harming an actual person. An entire market might emerge for synthetic human flesh. Where and how would we draw the line?

One way to begin would be to wrestle with one’s consciences and face what it takes to keep us alive, healthy, and well-stocked with happy meals. There is cruelty to animals and indeed to humans inherent across the food business, from its treatment of service staff to the terms of employment enforced on fast-food and now delivery-app employees. There is plenty of cruelty inherent in most of the systems required to maintain our lifestyles.

Why assume that answers may emerge from labs? Perhaps we may do well to take a long, hard look at how we live, how we treat one another in all aspects of our lives, and begin by wrestling with our own frailties.


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