Last month, from Singapore, came news of the world’s first commercial sale of cell-cultured meat, the product of a bioreactor instead of a slaughterhouse. The story received attention mostly in the business pages, not quite registering elsewhere. To read the analysis of price points, scaling issues, and other such details, you would never know that for all humanity a life-changing event had just occurred.
Meat without bloodshed — now that’s a story with legs, and the investment angles are the least of it. Singapore happened to be the site of this civilizational milestone because its government was the first to grant regulatory approval. Authorities recognized that flesh grown from the cells of an animal, in conditions replicating natural tissue growth, is still meat by every definition of the word, even if ages of settled assumptions and strict custom have been left behind in the process.
With that go-ahead, an American startup, Eat Just, sold its cultured chicken flesh to a Singapore restaurant called “1880.” On December 19, the restaurant served its first batch to customers, who by all accounts declared their slaughter-free fare indistinguishable in taste and texture from conventional meat. That was Day One in the age of cellular animal agriculture, setting in motion the rarest of new technology — the kind that can be used only to benevolent effect.
Give the entrepreneurs of Eat Just, and their many counterparts in this field, credit for noble purpose. We often worry about the “dehumanizing” effects technology can have. Here’s a technology designed to rehumanize us, putting mankind’s brilliance and ingenuity all in service to our gentler side.
Gone, as this innovation reshapes the market, is any further claim of necessity for industrial animal farming, an enterprise that long ago slipped the boundaries of reasonable and conscientious practice — to say nothing of an environmental and public-health influence equally reckless. For meat companies — already challenged by popular, plant-based alternatives — culturing technology will mark a radical redirection, and there is no industry more in need of one.
Thinking ahead a generation or two, in best-case terms: Who will miss the slaughterhouses, with their groan of travail that was never easy to bear in any age? It’s not as if we’ve ever pointed to the abattoirs with pride anyway, or situated them where they were likely to draw attention at all. With old prayers, after meat is set on the table, we still try to sanctify it, acknowledging the stain of violence and conceding, in so many words, that while humans might have to kill for food, we wish things could be otherwise.
With the spread of industrial livestock methods — today the source of 95 percent of meat, eggs, and dairy items — the fate of farm animals went from regrettable to abhorrent, from merely sad to morally untenable.
The historian Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, offers the arresting statistic that in our time “the majority of large animals on planet earth are domesticated farm animals that live and die as cogs in the wheels of industrial agriculture.” That comes to tens of billions of these “uniquely miserable” creatures, their physical and emotional distress utterly disregarded in mass confinement, left to a tortured existence from which any trace of human charity has been expunged, lest it add to cost or slow things down. The approach of death might bring relief if that process, too — with the frenzied pace of industrial slaughter lines — had not itself been designed as if to inflict maximum fear and dread right up to the end.
Misery is not the flaw in factory farming, but the whole scheme of it, never mind the comforting assurances of industry propaganda. Cruelty is the objective reality, degrading to all concerned, no matter how one weighs the importance of meat and other animal products, and no matter what appeals are made to economics, efficiency, or some other all-absolving rationale. Indeed, observes Mr. Harari, “if you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings,” then our modern, worldwide abuse of factory-farmed animals ranks among the worst crimes in human history.
The attitude that we can go on supporting such a system, buying its products and shrugging off the moral questions, is likewise the world’s biggest case of groupthink. Appetites that require or excuse the merciless treatment of other creatures are disordered appetites, whether they are satisfied amid the savagery of an Asian wet market or against the tidier backdrop of a Western supermarket. And practical indifference is only harder to explain given the concern and upright intention so many people express for farm animals, at least when we stop to think of their lot. If cultured meat can now break through this problem and offer a way out — the very same products, with none of the misery — why wouldn’t we choose it?
Maybe, then, the most far-reaching development of 2020 didn’t start in Wuhan, China, but rather in Singapore. A roomful of diners enjoyed their momentous cuts of meat, doubtless at a slightly higher price than they would have preferred, but at zero moral cost in pain and grief ignored — and one day everyone can have the same. That’s a deal humanity has long been waiting for, tempting in the best way and too good to turn down.