The public choice of in vitro meat
Nov 18, 2009
3 minute read

The transhumanist publication h+ Magazine has an article explaining Eight Ways In-Vitro Meat will Change Our Lives. It’s a fun read, if a little misleading at times. The author predicts that in vitro meat will be widely available, if not dominant, in 3-10 years. While I think that a few cultured meat products are likely to be in stores and restaurants within a decade, they are likely to be reconstituted meats like chicken nuggets and sausage, not steaks and poultry breasts. We are probably two decades or more away from the rosy scenario h+ envisions (but what else would you expect from a transhumanist?).

In vitro meat has intrigued me since I first heard about it around five years ago. As h+ argues, the technology could result in meat that is cheaper, healthier, safer, more humane, tastier, and more environmentally friendly. Cheaper meat means better nutrition and less starvation in developing countries. As Omega-3s replace saturated fats, doctors might advise their patients to eat more red meat. No more swine flu. And your Meat is Murder t-shirt will be an irrelevant anachronism.

Yet despite all its promise, I suspect that the full realization of this technology will be significantly delayed for political reasons. A large fraction of the population will be repulsed by the idea of meat created in giant vats. It will not be enough for this group to abstain from eating such meat; they will agitate for an outright ban so that no one can eat it. Furthermore, at least one group has a financial stake in banning in vitro meats: ranchers. In typical Bootleggers and Baptists fashion, funding from ranchers combined with populist hysterics will be enough to induce politicians to heavily regulate, if not ban, this technology.

The regulation will have a compounding effect on the populist hysterics. There are economies of scale in regulatory compliance—in light of the regulation, efficient meat producers will be large meat producers. Large corporations are unpopular, especially when contrasted with idyllic and mythological ranchers and family farmers. And if it ever appears that the ranchers are about to fold, people will whine about how big business is turning cows into an endangered species.

The h+ article predicts that in vitro meat will be successful in Europe before anywhere else, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that Europe has one of the least friendly regulatory environments for genetically modified food. While cultured meat is not (or not necessarily) genetically modified, it will almost certainly be just as heavily regulated, and for many of the same political reasons.

I hope I am wrong about these predictions. I am glad that environmentalists and animal rights activists will be on the other side of the issue. Maybe they will carry the day. Even if that is the case, the political system is enough of a wild card that anyone making rosy predictions about the future should consider whether governments will hinder or cripple the new technologies that will make it so excellent.