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The Sadism of Eating Real Meat Over Lab Meat

The rise of cellular agriculture will force consumers to consider the moral consequences of torturing and killing animals for food.

A lab-grown chicken nugget, on a fork
A lab-grown chicken nugget at a presentation in Singapore

Consider a steak. When it hits the hot oil in the pan, your mouth can’t help but water at the aroma. That familiar crackle of fat beginning to fry and render is the sound of the maillard reaction: that wondrous molecular dance of the steak’s amino acids and sugars as they caramelize during the searing process. When you pull it from the pan—it’s only a few moments away now—and your teeth sink into the medium-rare flesh, you will experience the textural contrast of the unctuous interior and the crispy crust. But you won’t be thinking about chemistry. With the aroma, the texture, and the savory juices coating your tongue, you will be absorbed. This is what it feels like to eat a perfect steak, and it feels good.

Now imagine that no animal suffered and died to provide you with this pleasure. In early February, the Israeli company Aleph Farms announced that it had 3-D printed a steak from live animal-cell cultures. The approach simulates the vascular system of living animal tissue. This means that as the steak grows, it develops as a dense web of sinew, muscle, and fat that are practically indistinguishable from meat harvested from the body of a dead cow. Its steak is a well-marbled rib eye.

You may soon be confronted at your local restaurant and grocery store with a dilemma that until now was the stuff of science fiction stories and philosophical thought experiments: If you have the choice of two steaks, one cultured in a lab and the other carved from a cow corpse, which are otherwise indistinguishable and similarly priced, which would you choose? As biotechnology scrambles centuries of human assumptions and debate about the relationship between eating, pleasure, and ethics, it also raises the possibility that eating animals may soon boil down to sadism, in its classical definition: deriving pleasure from inflicting suffering when other options exist.

Aleph Farms isn’t alone. Cellular agriculture, or the process of growing animal tissue from stem cells, is fast speeding toward mass-market release. In December, Singapore gave regulatory approval for the sale of cell-based meat to California-based food company Eat Just.* Earlier that month, a tasting restaurant for cell-based chicken opened in Israel, reportedly serving a sandwich that tastes just “like a chicken burger.” Prefer surf to turf? San Diego company Blue Nalu plans to launch cultured seafood products in the near future.

There are many good reasons, aside from the fundamental question of whether it’s ethical to kill animals just because they taste nice, to reduce your meat consumption. Industrial meat agriculture releases huge quantities of methane into the air and is a driver of global climate change. Animal waste turns into runoff, polluting nearby watersheds or causing E. coli outbreaks by contaminating greens such as lettuce and spinach. Even pasture-raised meat, produced at scale, can drive deforestation in vulnerable ecosystems like the Brazilian Amazon.

The meat industry also abuses animals long before it actually kills them, and depends on the exploitation of vulnerable human workers at the best of times. During Covid-19, slaughterhouses have become hubs of infection. Animal agriculture also helps develop and spread other zoonotic illnesses, such as H1N1 swine flu and H5N1—and more recently H5N8—avian influenza, in addition to playing a role in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Many people reading these words will already know all this: The catastrophe of industrial meat is a poorly concealed secret. Still, those dimly aware of the realities continue to eat meat in staggering quantities—about 220 pounds of flesh each and every year for the average American, to be precise. Objections to meat-eating slam into the stubborn fact that many people enjoy eating it. A lot. Those pleasures span the gustatory and sensorial through to the complex emotional satisfactions tied to the commensality of meals with friends and loved ones, as well as to attachments to cultural, religious, and family traditions.

Vegan and vegetarian critiques of meat have struggled to deal productively with these pleasures. In 1789, Jeremy Bentham wrote that when it comes to moral consideration for animals, the key question is simply, “Can they suffer?” The goal of preventing this suffering and recognizing that animals’ interests—specifically to be free from confinement, pain, and slaughter—have moral value has undergirded the politics of animal protection throughout its history. From lefty Tom Regan through utilitarian Peter Singer and on to libertarian Robert Nozick, many philosophical treatments of the animal question simply conclude that ethics should trump enjoyment: Animals’ interests, rights, and welfare outweigh how they taste to humans.

To the extent that animal rights activists and theorists address the pleasures of meat-eating at all, they tend to present it as mere carnivorous false consciousness: People have merely been socialized to believe they enjoy eating animal flesh; if they just ate the right turnip or tempeh it would shatter this belief and unlock the authentic pleasures of plant-based food. Alternatively, they dismiss it as ethically trivial, hand-waving away the real sacrifices they demand of consumers. Consumers have mostly returned the favor by dismissing vegetarianism and veganism.

Admitting that many people might enjoy eating meat means reckoning with the experiential costs of reducing meat consumption. Pleasures are tough to shake. When faced with ethical abstractions like claims about animal rights, many consumers will soberly nod along, even as they prepare to take another bite. For some, being told they shouldn’t desire the pleasure of meat only makes eating it—and rubbing it in vegans’ faces—even more pleasurable. Denigrating other people’s pleasures as superficial, tawdry, and disposable may not change what those people desire, but it can alienate them.

But we can learn important things from querying which pleasures people simply cannot do without, as these pleasures are a window into what they truly value and what sort of society produced them. The French philosopher Georges Bataille encouraged people to look without flinching at the carnage of the abattoir. He didn’t believe that seeing animal slaughter should make people feel shame and renounce meat (he did neither); rather, Bataille believed that disavowing the savagery of the slaughterhouse evinced a cowardly “unseemliness” and that a society that eats animals should unflinchingly face the violence of its pleasures. We don’t need to agree with Bataille’s conclusions to agree that pleasure must be examined head-on, and not ignored.

In the case of meat, we will need to understand the nature of the pleasure in question: Do we take pleasure from the steak’s sizzle and/or from the comforting childhood sense-memory of Dad slapping it on the grill? Is it the turkey itself or the Thanksgiving dinner where it is served? Or are we only satisfied when we know that this product came from an animal? Is the fact that what we are eating once lived, suffered, and died a crucial part of the way we think about tradition?

For most of human history, the gustatory and social pleasures of meat have been inextricably linked to the suffering and deaths of sentient creatures. That made it difficult to distinguish sadists from people who just craved the flavor of bacon.

By uncoupling the pleasure of meat from suffering and death, cellular agriculture will force us to be more precise about the nature of the pleasures we crave. Its great promise is that, in changing everything about meat production, it changes nothing about meat consumption. Consumers need only opt for cellular meat over conventional meat: a choice between a moral right and a moral wrong that are otherwise indistinguishable. It is also an answer to the intransigence and passive cruelty of the everyday meat consumer.

As Joel Stein observed in last Sunday’s New York Times, “I spend nearly as much time talking about how I want to stop eating meat as I do eating it. I care about animals and the environment and, even more, virtue signaling about how much I care about animals and the environment. I just don’t want to make any effort or sacrifice any pleasure.”

Back in 2008, when cellular agriculture seemed like futurist fantasy, ethicists Patrick Hopkins and Austin Dacey recognized this exact dilemma and wrote that what they dubbed “vegetarian meat” is “something that we may be morally required to support” because (in theory) it works with the pleasures of meat-eaters like Stein rather than against them: It doesn’t ask them to sacrifice their pleasure in the name of normative ethics. This is also what makes cellular agriculture a sadism test. If cell-based meat can reach price, taste, and nutritional parity with slaughter-based meat, and tick the other social and cultural boxes that send consumers to the butcher, the only pleasure specific to conventional meat that remains is the pleasure that comes from knowing an animal died for your dinner.

Some meat-eaters will object, as the French minister of agriculture did on Twitter in December, that “lab-grown” meats are unnatural “Frankenfoods.” They will say that they desire the pleasure of “real” meat. But after thousands of years of selective breeding and, more recently, the widespread use of gene editing, artificial insemination, growth hormones, and antibiotics, the vast majority of today’s livestock is as distant from pristine nature as you, reading this on your computer or phone, are from an ape. Nature doesn’t build abattoirs, force-feed chickens to bursting, or pack swine into concentrated animal feeding operations. Humans do.

Most meat, in other words, is not “natural” as consumers might understand it, which should lead us to reflect on what we may desire when we desire natural meat. As religious studies professor Alan Levinovitz reminds us, treating the “natural” as intrinsically good or moral can lead to practical and ethical errors. “Nature,” after all, can be cruel; desiring the natural may mean desiring cruelty. Other meat-eaters might resist this claim, touting meat produced using holistic, ecologically friendly methods, such as regenerative cattle grazing. But that would make meat far more scarce and expensive, and it would still require slaughtering animals. It might just be a greener, sadistic pleasure reserved for the wealthy.

Finally, meat-eaters may note that for some people and cultures, eating meat is part of a more sustainable, symbiotic relationship with animals and their ecosystems, rather than a consumer pleasure as we have described it. True, our argument is not universal. But it does apply to most American consumers. Just as our argument does not necessarily apply to, for instance, Inuit communities, it does apply to non-Inuit critics who would use Inuit hunting practices to justify their own eating habits. Similarly, some consumers may have serious religious or spiritual rationales that could complicate the consumption of cultured meat. A debate in religious and scholarly circles is already in full swing about what permutations of the cellular agriculture production process would allow these novel food products to be considered kosher or halal. We respect these important debates, but we do not think they relate to the current majority of consumption of industrial meat products. Gestures to the customs and beliefs of some cultures by people from outside those cultures may be seized upon to justify but seldom to honestly explain why consumers are eating either Big Macs in their cars or $350 cuts of Wagyu at company dinners.

Surveys of consumer willingness to buy cellular agriculture products vary wildly, ranging from outright refusal to eager anticipation. But surveys about a theoretical product can only tell you so much. The proof will be in the eating.

As (techno-) optimists, we think most people will decline the sadist’s meal: When given the opportunity to indulge the pleasures of meat at a similar price point without the need for animal suffering and death, many humans will take it. But we are prepared to be wrong. It may be the case that many people are attracted by the knowledge that a sentient creature suffered and died for their dinner—that it helps those people feel vigorous, predatory, dominant, and powerful, as the ecofeminist scholar Carol Adams has argued. Depriving people of “real” steak may soon be as central to right-wing grievances as guns: an item to be pried from their cold dead hands. (Remember the uproar about the Green New Deal allegedly taking away red-blooded Americans’ burgers.) But even liberals and centrists should consider the lesson offered by thinkers such as disability rights activist Sunaura Taylor, who links animal and disability liberation; ethicist Lori Gruen, who argues that compassion for animals helps develop “entangled empathy”; and legal scholar Maneesha Deckha, who has written about the intersection of animal rights with pluralism and postcolonialism: Actively choosing to reduce the suffering of another can be a practical way to improve your general capacity for empathy and compassion, both personally and politically.

Even compassionate and empathetic people may prefer traditional meat, thinking it’s for reasons other than sadism—a gut reaction that tells them that lab meat won’t satisfy the dictates of tradition, custom, or scripture in the same way as an Easter ham, a summer barbecue, or zeroa on the seder plate. The challenge in those cases is to ask: “but why?” Why exactly does tradition demand that the food on the table be acquired from an animal that was previously living and conscious—and therefore definitionally suffered? Why exactly is someone more squeamish about eating something that spent time in a petri dish than about eating something that struggled as it died?

What sorts of passive sadism have been passed along in assumptions we’ve never thought to question? And why? Are we content to live in a society governed by such assumptions? And how could we change this if we so desired? In this sense, cellular agriculture, properly examined, should force us to probe not just our dietary habits but also the larger politics of pleasure and suffering as they are unequally distributed in our society: What other forms of suffering make daily consumer pleasures possible, and what would be required to make it otherwise? Cellular agriculture offers the rare opportunity to recognize, respect, and even fortify the cherished pleasures that many consumers take from meat even as we work to address the very real interest animals have in avoiding suffering and death. At the core of this approach is a commitment to a more democratically hedonic society that offers robust and accessible pleasures for all and where suffering and sacrifice are minimized or, if they cannot be avoided, are borne not just by the poor, weak, and vulnerable.

*A previous version of this sentence incorrectly referred to the company as “JUST foods.”