No Animals Required: Lab-Grown Meat Can Help Beat Antibiotic Resistance
Could the bloody slaughters of animals become a thing of the past? Possibly: Scientists have been working on producing synthetic or cell-cultured meat (technically known as “in-vitro meat,” or IVM) for nearly a year. The world is getting closer to laboratory-produced meat being stocked in supermarkets globally.
The idea and practice of producing, selling, and consuming IVM is no doubt fascinating and exciting. Allured by the idea of saving money, consumers will probably be enticed by IVM products. However, serious ethical concerns have been raised regarding both the theoretical and practical use of this new breakthrough.
For more than half a century antibiotics have been used to great effect in reducing illnesses and deaths among the world’s population, however, its overuse, especially within the meat industry, is a crisis-in-the-making. There are now major concerns from professionals and the general public that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are on the rise. IVM could, in the longer term, address the meat industry’s addiction to antibiotics. “The extensive use of antimicrobial drugs,” noted the Interagency Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance (ITFAR), “has resulted in drug resistance that threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last seventy years.”
This represents a major public health issue. Indeed, IVM production still incorporates the use of antibiotics, but far less than in livestock farming. Additionally, there are some pretty healthy up-sides, such as the absence of saturated fats and growth hormones. The Food and Drug Administration found that the “medically important antimicrobials necessary for the growth of healthy animals for human consumption constitutes approximately 72 percent of antibiotic sales within the U.S.” Yet if meat were to be fully created in a lab, where conditions are entirely under the control of technicians and scientists, it might be the best step toward the reduction and even eventual elimination of antibiotics in the meat industry.
This could lead to a reduced occurrence of diseases like bird flu and swine flu. IVM production is not limited to items like chicken, beef, and pork, but also exotic meats. Accordingly, it could also help curb the black market for such meats, reducing the possibility of consumers being attacked by dangerous retroviruses.
Studies have shown that people are generally open, at least to trying IVM, but there still remain a major stigmatization of cultured meat. Existing aversions to something grown in a lab could be based on the novelty of IVM. It may also be the rumor mill that IVM is somehow disgusting or dangerous because little might be known about how it is actually made. If IVM were to come into full production, there would be a need to overcome the stigmatizations associated with it through intense marketing campaigns.
Much of this work should be focused on the health effects that the production of IVM has compared to the natural meats. In this regard, the health argument might be the most important to build if we are to see meat go from petri dish to dinner plate. With IVM production, scientist have full control over what they produce and how. This includes the ability to put or omit anything from the meat, including fat and vitamins.
Because IVM could lead to the reduction of livestock on farms, there could be less risk of dangerous outbreaks, which although can be mitigated by using antibiotics, could also lead to the reduction of antibiotics used on animals. This, in turn, presents the potential for greatly diminishing the transfer, not only of bacteria, but also drug-resistant bacteria, from animal to human.
The future of food security just might depend on people’s willingness to consume IVM. Coupled with the view that organic food alternatives, including “cage free” and “free range” can carry relatively high costs, and that IVM feeds positively into counterarguments about the perils of laboratory meat, it is necessary to promote the positives of IVM and look beyond negative misconceptions to the benefit of people in need of cheaper and safer sources of nutrition-rich meat.
Scott N. Romaniuk is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of International Studies, University of Trento.
Tobias J. Burgers is a Doctoral Researcher at the Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin.