Ethical human meat

Would you eat an ethical human burger?

Three phontes, with ads for watches on Instragram displayed on their screens

I believe that in the near future, we’ll all be vegans by default. Not because of any particular awaking of consciousness to animal rights or for health reasons, or anything like that. It’s just that the technology for making synthetic meats will soon be cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment than raising animals for food. Or at least, it will be cheaper, and the potential is there for the other two results.

The technology to make meat that’s better than animal sourced meat exists right now, today. It’s just at the starting line where it’s still a bit expensive and not that robust. But it’s developed enough that from here it isn’t a question of how to do it, it’s a question of how to keep improving it. It’s like what mobile phones were in the mid nineties. Not that impressive, and even though we know it’s going to get better, it’s hard to anticipate the future variety, capability, and scale of social influence.

There will probably be a small sub culture dedicated to eating meat sourced from actual animals, but that’ll be a fringe group indulging in an expensive artisanal lifestyle or hobby. The mainstream will be eating meat created in factories.

With mainstream adoption, we’re going to see some interesting developments. Eventually, we’ll be tailor making meat to suit particular interests, such as high protein and vitamin versions for health conscious people, and super flavoured versions to bring out tastes that have largely been lost in the hyper industrialization of meat in the last hundred years. Once we have mastered meat creation, then, why not create meats that simulate exotic animals we don’t usually eat because of their expense? And then tweak them to make them better than the source?

Then, and this is one direction that I’m hoping to see happen, what if we break away from the source material and start inventing whole new types of meat? We could call it “dragon meat” or “griffon meat”. Brands like Star Wars could create meats that were stylized after creatures referenced in their universes. Ton Ton steaks, for example.

As far as I know, there are two main approaches to creating meat for consumption. One is to simulate it using vegetable products. It’s the same premise as soy burgers, which have existed for ages, but were never realistically going to be mistaken for an actual burger. Now, though, they use all sorts of exotic combinations of plant products and additives. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but my friends who have say that the current Impossible Burgers are very convincing.

The other way to make a synthetic meat product is to “grow” the meat in a lab. Essentially, you take a single cell from an animal, and then you cultivate it so that it multiplies and grows into a muscular structure that we can use for meat. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. Anyone can tell you that the quality of beef, for example, will vary wildly depending on what you feed the cow and how you treat it, so, you can’t just get cells to multiply and expect a perfect steak. You would have to consider the kinds of nutrients it bathes in and how that impacts results. I’m sure there are other wildly more complicated issues that I can’t even conceive of involved as well.

But, again, as difficult as it is, it’s just a matter of tweaking over time to get understanding and control. With time comes mastery, and after mastery comes artistry, and at that stage we’ll see meats that exceed the expectations we used to have of conventional meat.

That second route to simulating meat comes with an interesting potential. You could arguably source cells from any animal without harming the animal enough to cross any ethical lines. There is an argument to be made that taking a cell from any animal is essentially against its consent, since animals fundamentally are incapable of expressing consent, and therefor unethical. However, I don’t think anyone could argue that every now and again pinching a cell from an individual animal and then leaving it to go live its life is far better than the wholesale confinement, torture, and slaughter we subject animals to now.

Anyway, if you could start experimenting with taking cells from animals without really doing them any noticeable harm, and then growing that cell into a component of full on meals, then you could do it to humans.

In other words, we could be completely ethical cannibals, consuming human meat without doing any harm to any humans. It could even be more ethical than other types of meats, because unlike animals, a human could willingly and knowingly give consent for their cells to be harvested.

The ethics gets interesting, because I’ve asked some of my vegan friends if they would ever eat meat sourced from human cells, and many say no. Vegans, like every human group, have individual reasons for why they’re vegan, so answers were all over the map. However, other than just an intuitive revulsion at the idea, shared by many non-vegan friends, a lot of vegan friends said that any meat sourced from animals goes against their views because to take and consume their cells is still a concept derived from a worldview that looks at animals as resources for humans to consume. They feel that animals, as living things, have their own reason for existence separate from our needs. Yes, the animal we stole the cells from is better off than if we kill it to eat it, but it remains true that we used that animal, and what defines our morality are the motivations that underlie our actions, not necessarily the results those actions have.

If you eat meat now, but feel a sense of revulsion at the thought of ethically sourced human meat, then you can probably work backwards to understanding how many vegans currently feel about eating meat. Knowing that your revulsion has nothing to do with the degree of harm done to anyone, then your revulsion must be come from a perception of humans as being non-edible for reasons to do with what you think a human is. Your associations with what humans are include a lot of different facets, but “edible” is not on that list. You interact with them, you view them, you empathize with them, but you don’t eat them. That’s how many vegans view animals. Which is not to say that vegans are any more right or wrong for viewing animals that way, I’m not trying to justify anyone’s point of view. I’m just trying pointing out potential routes for understanding.

Of everyone I’ve asked, there are some who would eat the ethical human meat. Even among the vegans. Some people are vegan for health reasons, or for environmental reasons, or for a desire to see less harm to animals, or a combination of factors, and some of them have told me that synthetic meat satisfies their criteria for avoiding consumption of actual live animals, and so they’d be willing to try. And of my meat eating friends, some have said that they wouldn’t eat humans, simply because it’s gross.

Of the ones who said they would, most said they would probably just try once, to see what it was like. The most interesting answer I got was one friend who said they’d be interested in trying different celebrities to see what they’d taste like. Which presents an interesting possibility in marketing for famous people. After all, a precedent exists, so I imagine it might not be a fringe idea limited to my one friend. Many cultures that practiced cannibalism did so in a context of ritual, where the person being eaten was respected and there was a belief or hope that their best qualities could be attained by consuming them.

Someone, somewhere will probably take a shot of offering a Tom Cruise burger with the promise that it might up your acting career. In a world where people still to this day believe in bullshit like aromatherapy and reiki, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least some kind of attempt to sell mysticism via human meat.

But another question that the celebrity issue leads to is, would you rather know or not know the human whose cells you were consuming? Would you want to hear their consent? Would having a sense of who they are, their background, their ethnicity, their age, their identity or anything else about them shape your experience of consuming them?

Would the form it was presented in make a difference? I can imagine many would balk at meat being carved off an identifiable human leg, the way sometimes you’ll see a leg of pork being presented. What if it’s a burger, though? How about as sushi? I have no particular interest in eating insects when they look like insects, but I did buy protein powder made from crickets, and it was fine. The delivery method matters.

It’s a topic that generates more questions than answers, and the only conclusions are the ones you come to personally, as an individual. The one objective thing I’m pretty sure of is that it won’t be hypothetical for long. One day, consuming ethical human meat will be an option you will be able to consider for real.