While synthetic meat (to use the term broadly) has long been a staple chow in science fiction, researchers are working hard to make it a commercially viable product. While there are many controversial aspects to lab grown meat, one matter of dispute is whether it is, in fact, meat.
As would be suspected, a legal battle is already underway over the legal definition of “meat” in the context of commercial food sales. Since this is a legal matter, the definition of “meat” in this context will most likely be settled in favor of whichever side can best lobby the relevant lawmakers. Interestingly, the legal definitions need have nothing to do with the way chemists or nutritionists would define a food. For example, since high fructose corn syrup has a bad reputation among consumers, the industry tried to get the name changed to “corn sugar.” To the chemist and nutritionist, high fructose corn syrup is a sugar; but the sugar industry rejects this definition—they presumably see a financial advantage in fighting this legal label. While the legal wrangling over how foods should be categorized can be interesting, it does not have much philosophical relevance when it comes to trying to determine what it is to be meat. After all, the legal answer is easy and obvious: it is whatever the law says, and this need have no rational foundation at all. As such, it is wisest to move on from the legal matter.
While philosophers are often accused of lacking common sense, there are some who think this is where philosophy should begin. That is, when trying to define what something is, a good starting point is where we already are in terms of common sense. J.S. Mill took this approach in his discussion of poetry, electing to start with the generally accepted view of poetry and working from there. This seems to be a sensible approach and will be applied to the matter of meat.
The common-sense definition of “meat” is that it is the edible flesh of an animal, most commonly the muscle tissue. While people do refer to the kernel of a nut as “nut meat”, common sense divides this sort of meat from animal meats. To illustrate, a vegan will not smugly say, “I do not eat coconut because that is meat.” But a vegan would refuse to eat a turkey leg—because that is the meat they do not eat. As such, I will stick with animal-based meats and ignore the other uses of the term “meat.” This does entail that I am rejecting all plant-based meats—they are not real meat.
On the face of it, synthetic meat would not seem to meet the common-sense definition. It is not cut from an animal; it is grown in a vat (or whatever). Thus, it would fail to be meat. On this view, it is the origin of the meat that defines it as meat. At this point, one could raise a weird sci-fi scenario: what if scientists created an animal whose body also included vegetable matter, such as potatoes growing within a cow? The carrots would be part of the animal, but they would not seem to be meat. As such, the composition of the material also matters—to be meat, it must have the right sort of makeup (typically muscle tissue). On this view, composition would be a necessary condition for being meat (so cow-potatoes would not be meat). But composition would not be a sufficient condition. On this view, synthetic meat that was not cut from an animal would not be meat. While this quick and easy solution is appealing, it does not seem to be the final word.
Suppose that a cut of muscles cells is taken from a cow. This would obviously be a steak. No suppose that the cells were cultivated in a lab and grown into a massive slab. These cells originated from the steak and are the same. As such, it would seem to be hard to deny that the slab is not meat. To us an analogy, if someone took a plant cutting and grew a slab of the plant cells in the lab, it would seem undeniable that the slab would be plant matter (unfortunately, “plant” does not work like “meat”, so I can’t say “would be plant”). The same should also apply to meat.
There are two replies to this analogy. One is to argue that plants lack the individuality of animals and hence plant material works differently from meat. If potato was grown as a slab in the lab, it would still be potato. But meat must come from an individual animal or it is not meat. The second reply is that the “plant” slab is not plant (to use “plant” like “meat”) since it is not coming from a plant—a slab grown from potato cells is not a potato plant and hence is not plant.
The counter to these replies is to focus on the question of what the discernible difference would be between the slabs and the plants and animals. Obviously enough, looking at them in the lab would be a dead giveaway, but that would be an unfair comparison. After all, a living cow does not look like a steak. A fair comparison would be to put a steak cut from a cow against a synthetic steak in a series of tests. Some would relate to food—taste testing. Some would be chemical and genetic—to see what the material is. Naturally, the tests would have to avoid being rigged—a test that was aimed only at telling if the meat was grown in an animal would be an example of a rigged test. If the synthetic meat passed these test (it tastes like meat, has the texture of meat, looks like meat, has the amino acids of meat and so on), then it would be hard to deny that it would be meat.
So far, I have only been discussing synthetic meat that can trace its origin back to non-controversial meat. But there is also the problem of completely synthetic meat—meat that is truly synthetic and has no causal chain that links it back to an actual animal. In the ideal, it would be chemically engineered protein that duplicates the qualities of meat. To use an extreme science fiction example, think of the replicator from Star Trek. This fictional machine could create a perfect steak by assembling it from raw materials, no cow involved. Unless someone insists that an animal must die (or at least be cut) for meat to be meat, it would be difficult to argue that replicator meat or properly engineered protein would not be meat. After all, unless one knew that it did not come from an animal, one would think it was meat.
This does point to the obvious counter—someone could draw a line and insist that meat must, by definition, come directly from an animal to be meat. Anything else could be meat-like, but would need to be distinguished from meat. This, of course, nicely mirrors what Locke said in the context of personal identity regarding the use of words, “And indeed every one will always have a liberty to speak as he pleases, and to apply what articulate sounds to what ideas he thinks fit, and change them as often as he pleases.” As such, the problem of meat could be solved by having multiple terms for various meat and meat-like things. Or we could follow the lead of Hume and conclude that “…all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties.” In this case, “meat” is merely a matter of language, which is to say that the problem remains unsolved.
In the next essay I will consider another approach to the metaphysics of meat, namely the morality of meat.