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Conference Report: The Ethics of In-Vitro Flesh and Enhanced Animals in Rothbury, September 18th and 19th, 2014.

As reviewed by Linnea Laestadius and Alexandra Sexton

Published October 7, 2014 | Updated June 15, 2021 |

Linnea Laestadius headshot

Linnea Laestadius is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Policy and Administration at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Much of her research is focused on the promotion of environmentally sustainable diets. She is currently exploring questions related to both cultured meat and plant-based meat analogs. She can be reached at Llaestad@uwm.edu

 

Alexandra Sexton headshot

Alexandra Sexton is a Geography PhD student at King’s College London researching the biopolitical implications of cultured meat and edible insects as solutions to global food security. Her general research interests are in the politics of consumption, materialities of food, (bio)ethics and developing innovative methodologies for food research. She can be reached at alexandra.e.sexton@kcl.ac.uk or on Twitter @read_and_eat_

Thoughts by Linnea:

For two days in the middle of September 2014, the small English town of Rothbury became a key site for the discussion of the ethics of cultured meat and enhanced animals. Organized by Dr. Jan Deckers of Newcastle University and sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the conference (The Ethics of In-Vitro Flesh and Enhanced Animals) brought together a disciplinarily and geographically diverse group of scholars to engage with important questions about the ethics of biotechnology and animals. One participant remarked that we had more individuals engaged with the ethics of cultured meat in the room than there were scientists involved in publishing on the actual development of cultured meat. Cultured meat and the enhancement of animals are clearly issues that pique a certain fascination among those in the social sciences and humanities. Of the two, cultured meat in particular drew the attention of presenters.

Presenters:

  • Bernice Bovenkerk, Philosophy Group, Wageningen University.
  • Amanda Cawston, Faculty of Philosophy and Downing College, University of Cambridge.
  • Jan Deckers, School of Medical Education, Newcastle University.
  • Clemens Driessen, Cultural Geography, Environmental Sciences Group, Wageningen University.
  • Arianna Ferrari, Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
  • Linnea Laestadius, School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
  • John Miller, School of English, University of Sheffield.
  • Neil Stephens, Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.
  • Lars Øystein Ursin, Department of Public Health and General Practice, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
  • G. Owen Schaefer, Lincoln College, University of Oxford.
  • Cor van der Weele, Department of Communication, Philosophy and Technology, Wageningen University.
conference participants

Most of the participants at the conference venue in Rothbury.

Needless to say, the conference presentations were highly engaging and made for some rich conversations both in the sessions and afterhours. While it’s difficult to concisely capture two days of presentations and discussion, some of the reoccurring themes related to the naturalness of cultured meat and enhanced animals (Is it natural and should it matter if it is natural?), current public perceptions of cultured meat (Do initial and immediate reactions differ from attitudes following further reflection?), strategies for public acceptance and overcoming the well-known ‘yuck factor’ (Should we work toward acceptance, and if so, how?), the ethical implications of cultured meat and enhancement for animals themselves (Do these avenues offer meaningful ethical benefits for animals or simply commoditize them in new ways?), and more general questions about the ontology of cultured meat. The conference ended with thoughts by organizer Jan Deckers on how we might best operationalize the idea of naturalness.

While opinions on cultured meat and its ethical performance varied significantly, I think there was near consensus on the possibility of cultured meat to generate benefits for animals and society in certain scenarios. That said, there were certainly some ethical reservations presented as well. One of these reservations was that such technologies do not move us past the utilization and commodification of animals for human use. In my own interpretation, much of the discussion about the ethics of cultured meat hinged on how pragmatic we want to be about dietary change and how plausible different cultured meat/conventional meat scenarios might be in the long term. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more research on how public acceptance of cultured meat compares to acceptance of already available plant-based meat analogs.

In short, the conference was very much representative of the larger scholarly and public discussions around cultured meat and enhanced animals. All of the presentations were recorded and will eventually be posted online for those with an interest (and I encourage you to view them once they are posted!).

Some further thoughts from Alexandra:

Following Linnea’s excellent overview of the conference and the topics that were explored, I would just add that for me one of the most interesting themes that recurred over the two days was the debate about the ontology of cultured meat. Questions concerning whether cultured meat is the same as ‘traditional’ meat, and if it is indeed helpful to view and promote it as the same were prominent throughout many of the conversations.

For me, I think there are both advantages and points of caution for associating cultured meat with traditional meat products. One of the main benefits is the existence of an established consumer acceptance of certain meats, and if cultured meat can be seen to align with these products it is assumed that resistance will be somewhat minimised. However, I feel cultured meat has an exciting opportunity to position itself as a ‘new way’ of meat production in the public imagination, one that is distanced from all of the ethical, environmental and health issues associated with the intensive livestock industry.

As was mentioned in a number of conference presentations, many consumers are in fact open to the cultured meat method and acknowledge its potential to increase animal and environmental welfare in the meat industry (whether this potential can be realised is another subject for debate, and, as Linnea notes, this was also a key topic of discussion at the conference). Engaging people in discussions about what meat ‘is’ and the reasons and expectations around those beliefs is, in my view, an important part of the cultured meat discourse and something which should certainly be continued within scholarly and public conversations.

This was just one of the many rich discussion points that the conference engaged with. Thanks again to Dr. Jan Deckers for convening the conference and to all the presenters for such thought-provoking papers.