lab grown meat petri dish and latex gloves
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegetarian? A Philosophical Debate.

With Meatless Week, Thrillist is taking a break from its meaty tendencies to explore all things vegan and vegetarian. Our latest article tackles a burning question about lab-grown meat, a topic senior food features editor Khushbu Shah also discusses with Trace Dominguez on this week's Seeker Plus podcast, which you can watch below.

A future where meat is no longer murder -- but still, definitely, meat -- might be closer than most of us realize. For decades, cell biologists have been working on a sustainable solution to the problems plaguing the animal agriculture business that aspires to significantly reduce the industry's carbon footprint, get well ahead of the impending meat scarcity, eliminate animal slaughter entirely, and everything in between. Cultured meat, in-vitro meat, clean meat -- call it what you want, but by harmlessly extracting muscle tissue from live animals, scientists have been able to grow meat in their labs, minus most of what gives Big Meat its bad rap. With so many of the sticky ethical questions seemingly moot in contextualizing lab-grown meat, an interesting question arises: Could vegetarians eat it in good conscience?

Peeking under the hood, the process is much more complicated and lengthy than its elevator pitch outlines. From the harvested tissue, you're trying to get to the fast-replicating muscle cells, which have to be molecularly severed from the fat cells bound to them, which are then cultured to form very small strands of muscle tissue called myotubes. Several thousand myotubes are layered together to form a super-lean patty (the main complaint of the beef burgers is their lack of fat). An important wrinkle in this otherwise innocuous scientific procedure: Currently, lab-grown beef requires fetal bovine serum, the byproduct of the blood of a cow fetus which is, frankly, incidental in the scheme of the agriculture business. Obviously, this factoid tips the scale toward "no," at least lab beef isn't a product for vegetarians. (Pork, though, has been successfully made without animal serum.) But it's less germane to take the implications of lab-grown meat at face value than it is to consider it in the context of its foreseen impact. As of right now, it's too cost-prohibitive to be commercially viable, let alone in the final stages of having figured out the best way to construct man-made meat.

All of this unsorted information floating about left us asking more questions than we had gotten answers. So to make sense of it, we honed our question down to beef and fielded the opinions of nine smart people -- chefs, thinkers, scientists, and your average vegetarian -- who were nice enough to share their thoughts on the philosophical quandary at hand: is lab-grown beef vegetarian?

lifelong vegetarian
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Lifelong Vegetarian: Yes, barring ecological worries

Mehal Shah, everyday vegetarian
"I am a vegetarian for two reasons: The first is that I seek to prevent animal suffering. The second is for environmental reasons. It’s possible the process of making lab-grown meat is not actually all that environmentally friendly. Though existing farming practices aren’t great for the environment, the impact of lab-grown meat is unknown. As for animal suffering, there's only one real argument against this burger -- namely to embrace panpsychic philosophy, which claims that consciousness is an innate property of matter and that the cow tissue suffers. I am not a panpsychist; therefore, I would eat the burger, assuming environmental conditions were safe. I would feed it to other vegetarians as well if I was able to give them advance notice and someone with experience cooking meat is doing the cooking."

isa chandra
Isa Chandra Moskowitz | Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Vegan Chef: LOL, no

Isa Chandra Moskowitz, chef at Modern Love, cookbook author
"It's not technically vegetarian, of course, because it comes from an animal. But I think it would be great if we could use it for pet food. I also would rather people ate biomeat than kill animals. Personally, I'm not interested in eating it. I'll stick to lentils!"

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Scientist: It's... complicated

Dr. Mark J. Post, co-founder of MosaMeat and physiology professor at Maastricht University
"Cultured, or clean, meat is meat made from animal cells, mostly designated skeletal muscle stem cells that have a tremendous replicative capacity and are still able to turn into well- developed muscle fibers. The technology allows for an up-to-1,000,000 [animal] reduction in required livestock, thereby saving feed and food resources, reducing environmental impact and improving animal welfare, all goals that certainly align with the ideals of vegetarian and vegan communities. For those who do not like meat, judge it to be unhealthy, or still have issues with using a small number of animals for human food production, the technology of culturing meat will be inconsequential or even unacceptable. The pragmatic attitude, however, would be to accept the technology for its larger societal merit even if it is not a personal favorite solution to generalized meat consumption.

"From a biological point of view, cultured or clean meat is meat as we always have known it. However, it is obvious from public reactions that this highly technological production method is not immediately embraced. The analysis of this mostly emotional ‘ick' response is not easy, but likely involves a biologically ingrained fear for unknown food based on safety assessment. Technology is also very often confused with large multinational corporations that operate outside of our control, although culturing meat could easily be done on a community, micro-brewery type, scale where one arguably has even better control over meat production than is currently the situation. Last, and perhaps most relevant to the plant-based diet discussion, meat has a cultural context of power, masculinity and wealth, attributes that may be intrinsically related to the very fact that you have to kill other species for it. In that sense, cultured or clean meat will always be a different product, somewhere in between meat and plants. It is conceivable and even likely, therefore, that the development of cultured or clean meat products will facilitate the transition from an animal-protein towards a plant-protein diet."

ingrid newkirk
Ingrid Newkirk | Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Activist: No, but I'm for it anyway 

Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA
"We actually started this whole business of getting [lab-grown meat] popularized about 17 years ago. We're a vegan organization: we don't believe that animals belong to human beings, and biologically, humans are not suited to eating other animals anyway. But we talked about it internally -- it was highly controversial. We ended up deciding that [funding research] was the right thing to do, not to be purists. It had enormous potential, which has proven to be the case. We have always believed that anything that will stop people from factory farming, transporting, slaughtering animals in hideously cruel conditions -- and there is no other way to do it, if the world's population mostly eats meat -- is a good thing. There are stages -- and of course the medium that in-vitro is grown in right now is not vegetarian, let alone vegan -- so the goal is at one point it will be, that it will be a concoction of mushrooms or who knows what. In the meantime, it's such a vast reduction in the agony of suffering for the billions of animals who otherwise would be killed one by one. It's all a process; it's all a progress. It's all going in the right direction. Whether by the time in-vitro meat is really marketable and in stores anybody will care, I don't know, because meanwhile, along have come these other things, [like] bioengineered meat, which doesn't require anything from animals or the replication of their genetic makeup. But anything that can reduce the pain, the fear [in animal slaughter]: Great, let's go there."

conscientious chef
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Conscientious Chef: No, and it ignores the real problem

Dan Barber, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
"I don’t think it qualifies as source of vegetarian protein, but I think the real question is would I even serve lab-grown meat at all? I don’t see the appeal. What I see is that we are trying to improve animal welfare and the environmental impact of raising meat for our diet. But, in fact, if you raise animals in the right way with the right kind of ecological solutions for humanely raised meat, it results in a better, improved environment. You just have to eat less meat. I am more on the end of changing the culture of the desire for meat instead of creating crazy solutions to replace meat. And if that crazy solution is vegetarian, I don’t know. That's philosophical -- I'm just more questioning the whole endeavor.

"Creating sustainable, edible, and affordable meat are all things we’ve done for thousands of years when we raise animals properly. The fact that we put them in confinement and raised them in horrific conditions that causes environmental problems isn’t the cow’s fault, and our fault stems from our insatiable desire to eat meat twice a day, every day.

"I think lab-raised meat is a cop-out. It allows us to pursue our gastronomic pleasures, but it ignores the correspondence between gastronomy and agriculture, and that correspondence is the ticket to a better, healthier, and more sustainable future."

peter singer
Peter Singer | Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Ethicist: No, and that ignores the central question

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University
"No, cultured meat is not vegetarian, but that isn't what matters. Being a vegetarian or vegan isn't a religion. We should be eating ethically, and in order to avoid being complicit in the suffering of animals, we should not eat them. Similarly, to reduce our contribution to climate change, we should avoid foods that come from animals that produce a lot of greenhouse gases. If cultured meat does not come from animals who can suffer, and if it avoids the greenhouse gas emissions caused by rearing animals, I don't see any ethical objections to eating it. Then it becomes a personal choice -- do you like the taste of it, is it going to be bad for your health, and so on?"

religious scholar
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Religious Scholar: Sure, why not?

Shreena Gandhi, PhD, religious studies professor at Michigan State University
"I think it would be OK for vegetarians to eat lab-grown meat. Most vegetarians eat butter, drink milk, indulge in ice cream, etc., but I do think vegans would have an issue with this, because they don't use anything that comes from animals.

"The question of whether this is fit for Hindus is more complex. First, it's important to note that the movement for Hindus not eating beef is recent in the long history of Hinduism. Based on the Vedas, it is evident that ancient Hindus did eat beef. It was not until the 19th century when beef prohibition became an organized movement within Hindu communities. So for me, as Hindu, it would be okay to eat lab-grown beef. But I could see some Hindus taking objection to this, and I understand. The beautiful thing about the Hindu religion is there is no central authority and it is incredibly flexible and diverse. I think it comes down to taste. If lab-grown meat tasted good, I would eat it. If did not, I’d rather eat vegetables that I know taste good."

nick solares
Nick Solares | Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Meat Expert: It's pointless

Nick Solares, professional carnivore, host of The Meat Show
"No, lab-grown meat is an animal product, and I definitely would not feed it to a vegetarian. Even if the animal didn’t suffer or didn’t die, you have still taken something from the animal, and you’ve exploited it, and subjugated it in some way. To be frank, I really don’t get the point of lab-grown meat. Is the point to replace protein sources? Because there are already ways of doing that with things like the Impossible Burger.

"While I would personally try lab-grown meat out of morbid curiosity (and because it is my job), I don’t think it is necessary. I think the solution to all the problems surrounding mass-produced meat is to eat meat differently. I eat far too much red meat, but the meat I tend to eat is generally very expensive. It matches what it took to grow the meat. Unfortunately, most of the meat on the market is too cheap. We need to eat less bad meat. Simple as that."

the academic
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The Academic: It's actually a paradox

Ben Wurgaft, intellectual historian at MIT, author of upcoming book exploring the future of meat
"First off, an inconvenient truth: until cultured meat can be produced without using fetal bovine serum in the growth medium, it won't be vegetarian. But if we can make meat without animals (except for a small biopsy of their cells), then we open a Pandora's box of definitional complexity. Indeed, many proponents of cultured meat seem to want to have it both ways: they want cultured meat to be seen as 'vegetarian' so that ethical vegetarians will find it acceptable, and they want omnivores to see cultured meat as 'meat' -- bracketing the question of whether or not it is vegetarian -- and eat it instead of eating animals. Still other proponents of cultured meat, motivated primarily by environmental concerns about the impact of industrial animal agriculture, hope that no vegetarians will adopt a diet rich in cultured meat, because vegetarians are already eating a more environmentally-friendly diet. Cultured meat is a paradox, and it doesn't yet exist as a consumer product. If it ever does, it will undoubtedly spark debates among vegetarians, and possibly even change the way we define meat, and the relationship between meat and animals."


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Khushbu Shah and Leanne Butkovic are features editors at Thrillist.