Don’t eat your heart out

How stem cell research will make meat consumption ethical

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Photo by Florence Ivy

There was the remarkable discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells just a few years ago. The rightly Nobel Prize-awarded Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon had managed to turn regular specialised cells “back” into stem cells, also meaning these can then develop into any other kind of cell.

While the full extent of this is still being realised, in some areas the consequences are already evident. The risk of rejection in transplant surgery can be reduced by growing tissue from the recipient’s own cells instead of using a donor. But the required tissue can now be grown from any other cell type; in theory, you could grow an entire inner organ from just skin cells. That stem cells no longer have to come from embryos has made things easier for research faced with the ethical issues of such procedure.

Thinking ahead, induced pluripotent stem cells may also have solved for us the ethical issue of eating meat from once living animals — whether you’re concerned about their treatment, or find the idea of eating dead bodies repulsive in itself. For an alternative production of meat, there can only be the one truly consenting source: yourself.

Someday in the future when cultured meat has become economically sound, it can also be grown from an initial cell mass of your own skin. You would at regular intervals deposit tissue which would then be turned into stem cells and used as a primer in a muscle cell culture. A few months later there would be a fully grown piece of meat for you to pick up, while at the same time depositing new tissue if needed. That day, what was once something like “I only eat organic meat” will have turned into “I only eat my own meat”.

This may seem revolting to you, but it’s really just revolutionary. “Test tube babies” were revolting to some people too, and cloning still is. But if we are to continue eating meat, sooner or later we really ought to eat it from someone who will allow us to.

Written by

Film scholar and technologist with an MA in Cinema Studies. Wrote thesis on cyborgs in film. 15+ years in the computer industry. Science fiction cinema host.

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