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 JUST foods. 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, m