Philosopher discusses cellular agriculture
Josh Milburn is a moral and political philosopher interested in questions about human/animal relationships and the future of food. He is presently a Lecturer in Political Philosophy and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. He is also the current host of the long running animal studies podcast Knowing Animals.
Milburn is the author of two books: Just Fodder: The Ethics of Feeding Animals (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022) explores overlooked ethical questions about animals' diets, including discussing the possibility of feeding animals cultivated meat. Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) asks what the food system of a state that takes animals' rights seriously would look like.
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SLAUGHTER-FREE AMERICA: When and how did you first learn about cultivated meat?
JOSH MILBURN: I can't remember precisely. Cultivated meat had been hinted as an interesting possibility by ethicists for years; I remember when I heard of Mark Post's famous burger in 2013 that I thought 'Oh wow, they've managed to do it!' rather than 'What on earth are they talking about?'. It was the Post story that really brought it to my attention, but I couldn't tell you where I first heard of it. Probably in the footnotes of a philosophy book I read when I was a student.
SFA: How did you come to support cultivated meat?
JM: At first, cultivated meat was an interesting puzzle for me. If it's normally wrong to kill animals for meat (as I believe), what if we could create meat without killing them? I moved on from this when, during my PhD, I became particularly interested in political philosophy. This led me to begin thinking about cultivated meat in relation to just and unjust societies, rather than simply as a matter of personal diets.
In thinking about the question in these terms, I began to think that cultivated meat could provide an important stepping stone to a more just society, or at least a way to move away from the awful things that we do to animals today. This is what I argued in my 2016 paper 'Chewing over in vitro meat', which was published in the academic journal Res Publica. (Judging from the number of times it has been cited, this has become one of my most widely read papers.) At the time, I remember thinking that the paper was a kind of '7/10 endorsement' of cultivated meat.
However, I came to think much more warmly of cultivated meat for two reasons. First, I realised just how important cultivated meat could be for the feeding of animals. Many animals have much more need of meat in their diet than we do. (And that might be true even if we could feed lots of carnivorous animals with appropriately planned plant-based diets.)
Second, I thought a bit more about the importance that people put in eating. For lots of people, meat eating is about more than simply liking a taste. Indeed, it can be very important for them, part of what it means (for them) to live the good life. Now, this doesn't mean we can simply ignore animals' rights. But it does mean that we, collectively, might have very good reasons to try to find ways that people can continue to have access to meat without violating animals' rights. Cultivated meat (and associated technologies) offers us that opportunity.
So now I think that not only might cultivated meat be a good thing for us here and now, but that it may well be a part of the most respectful future food system.
SFA: Once cultivated meat is cheaper than and indistinguishable or superior in taste to slaughtered meat, what sort of impact might it have on animal agriculture?
JM: Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg have a very clever argument suggesting that choosing to eat slaughter-based meat when cheap, tasty cultivated meat is available is literally sadism. I don't know if that's true in every case, but it may well be in many. In short, it's tricky to imagine what kind of argument could possibly justify continuing to torture and kill animals for meat. Or, for that matter, could possibly justify states continuing to permit people to torture and kill animals for meat, given that most states already (perfectly legitimately) restrict violence towards animals when it's not deployed in the pursuit of some suitably worthwhile end. Or, more precisely, an end deemed suitably worthwhile.
That may sound like I'm saying that cheap, tasty cultivated meat should mean the end of animal agriculture. But I'd actually like to think that there could still be room for something like animal agriculture, not least because lots of people value animal agriculture: their vision of the good life involves them working closely with animals in a way only possible on the small-scale farm (or something like it). The production of cultivated meat, for example, may well continue to need small-scale farms to provide cells as the starting point of cultivated meat production. That could be a good thing, if (crucially) this is slaughter-free farming. Cultivated meat offers us the chance for a meat-industry without slaughterhouses, and a meat industry where farms are happy, safe places for animals.
SFA: What would you say to animal activists who are opposed to cultivated meat?
JM: I would ask them to think about whether their opposition is to the particular paths that the nascent cultivated meat industry is taking at present, or whether their opposition is to cultivated meat in principle. If it's the former, then, yes, we can concede that the present industry has problems to overcome. For example, the use of foetal bovine serum as a growth medium for cultivated meat is regrettable, and means that the first commercially available cultivated meat (which is available in Singapore) is produced in a way that is not consistent with animal rights.
If it's the latter, I would ask the animal activist to reflect on why they are opposed to cultivated meat in principle. I'm not convinced that we have good reasons to be. I can't run through every objection they might raise in an interview like this. But I can say that lots of animal activists are (understandably!) very attached to veganism, and so quick to condemn any consumption of animal products. But I think we should be committed to animal rights rather than veganism. Sometimes, they can come apart.
Finally, I'd encourage the activist to think seriously about differences between cultivated meat and other forms of cellular agriculture. The importance of this is that even if they are opposed to cultivated meat, maybe they aren't (or shouldn't be) opposed to precision fermentation, as used to produce cultivated milk, among other things. Even though cultivated meat is the technology that gets the most headlines, we shouldn't dismiss the importance of other cellular agricultural technologies for helping animals and creating a more just food system.
SFA: Would you eat cultivated meat, or is it just something you want available for others?
JM: I would certainly try it (if it was made in a way consistent with animal rights!), but I don't know whether it's something I'd eat regularly. Om the other hand, I can certainly see myself regularly eating dairy products made via precision fermentation. And perhaps other products of precision fermentation, too.
SFA: Do you think activists should expend energy and resources to help advance cellular agriculture, by pushing for more government funding for cultivated-meat research?
JM: I certainly do. I think that cellular agriculture has real potential to help make our food systems less harmful, including less harmful to animals, less harmful to environment, and less harmful to public health. But, at the same time, we have to be careful not to get caught up in the idea of cellular agriculture as a silver bullet. It's not going to solve all of the problems with our food system, and even the ones it can help with, it won't entirely resolve. So I don't think that activists (animal activists, environmentalists, health activists...) should be dropping everything to focus entirely on cultivated meat. But I do think it's something they should be seriously considering, and to which they should be offering at least some support.