The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Petri-Meat: Dishing Up Questions

Would you eat meat made in a petri dish? Will the gourmet burger of the future be grown in a laboratory? A team from Maastricht University, led by Dr. Mark Post, and sponsored by Google’s Sergey Brin, has done just that. 

But why make meat in a petri dish? What’s the advantage? What is the problem for which petri-meat is the solution? For Brin and Post, the concern appears to be environmental: land use and greenhouse emissions. According to Post, “70% of arable land is used to grow crops for animal feed” and cattle account for 39% of methane emissions.

 So would you eat petri-meat to save the environment?

 But the story isn’t quite so simple. The motives are more complex than straight-up environmental concern. In reality, Brin and Post see the animals themselves as the problem. Writing for the Scientific American, Christina Agapakis reports, “Animals like pigs and cows, [Post] says, have not been designed to efficiently convert vegetable protein into animal protein.”

In other words, he thinks that humans make meat better in laboratories. By “better,” he means, presumably, more efficiently and with more control. Environmental benefits might result, but there’s also money to be made. Agapakis is right to critique this perspective. And along with her, Christians should as well.

Petri-meat only makes sense if you reduce animals to poorly-“designed” meat factories. Agapakis argues that petri-meat isn’t any more productive than raising animals the more natural way, but her claim may or may not hold up. We may someday find that petri-meat is healthier, more controlled, more timely, and more cost-efficient than raising animals naturally. The 5-ounce burger took only three months in a petri-dish, The Economist reports. “Faster than a cow,” Dr Post pointed out.

But what do these efficiencies mean for animals? Will cattle, pigs, or chickens be necessary? Will we have any reason to continue raising and herding these animals?

Do we have any ethical obligation to the animals we raise and slaughter for food? How does this obligation change if we simply reduce them to a petri-dish? These ethical dilemmas have already plagued our food-supply system. Does petri-meat solve those dilemmas or further abstract and obscure the problems?

Source: The Daily Green
Do animals like cattle or chickens have any value or dignity apart from their producing meat? Or are they mere meat factories at our disposal?

Some proponents might argue that petri-meat actually shows more dignity to animals by not killing them for food. If so, is there a legitimate argument for continuing to slaughter animals? Is part of their inherent dignity based on our need of them and our subsequent care for them? Will we show them any real dignity when we no longer need them?

While we're at it: Consider the farmers who, like my uncles, cultivate that "70% of arable land." What will those cattle and hog farmers do when the meat is made by lab technicians in white coats? Will their land values plummet? How will that affect the broader economy? The sheer technology needed to produce petri-meat will limit the production and the profits to pharmaceutical-like conglomerates.

Suddenly the environmental concerns seem like a mere tip of the iceberg. There's a lot more growing inside that petri-dish than just a hamburger.

Do God’s creatures have value apart from the human economy? Do they have inherent value as part of the created order?

Many Christians today see the world as a warehouse of resources at their disposal. Heidegger called this the “standing-reserve.” The theology of many Christians has been co-opted by this sort of technological worldview. To them, stewardship is thought of in primarily business terms, which demand an unbending efficiency of resources, no matter whether those “resources” are plants, animals, or people. This stewardship has been further skewed by Left Behind theology: If God will destroy the world in the end anyway, then why preserve such poorly-designed meat factories? Clearly, these theologies of stewardship and end-times are broken, or gaunt at best.

But if, on the other hand, God is working to redeem creation in and through the Church, to bring the world to rights, then theologians need to help Christians think about the dignity of our fellow creatures—cows, pigs, and chickens. Petri-meat is simply the latest step in the de-creaturization of animals. To retrieve a more robust theology will also call into question some of the practices we already accept as normal. But if God’s mission is to redeem the world, and if Christians are going to be a part of it, then we need to face these questions and retrieve the dignity in creation that many have already forsaken.