While lab-grown meat is 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 meat.

As lab-grown meat startups arose, the beef industry rushed to argue that lab-grown meat should not be labeled as meat. Interestingly, legal definitions of food types do not need to correspond to ways chemists or nutritionists would define them. 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 solve the problem of, metaphysically, what it is to be meat. This is because the legal answer is easy and obvious: it is whatever the law says, and this need have no rational foundation at all. My concern, as a philosopher, is with the issue of whether lab-grown meat is real meat.

While philosophers are often accused of lacking common sense, some philosophers 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 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 mean that I am rejecting all plant-based meats. They are not, on the face of it, 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 since 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 as part of a genetically modified cow? The potatoes would be part of the animal, but they would not seem to be meat. As such, the composition of the material also matters and to be meat something must have the right composition (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. Now suppose these meat cells were cultivated in a lab and grown into a massive slab. These cells originated from steak and are the same. As such, it would seem to be hard to claim 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. 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, such as taste testing. Some would be chemical and genetic, to see what the material is. Naturally, the tests would have to avoid being rigged. So, 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 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 is 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. This is meat that is completely synthetic and has no causal chain linking it back to an actual animal. In the ideal, it would be chemically engineered protein that duplicates the qualities of meat. To use a 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, it would pass all the empirical tests for being 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

While the consumption of meat has long been a part of the endless culture war, a new front has opened–the insects and lab-grown meat battlefield. In May of 2024 my adopted state of Florida passed a law prohibiting the sale of lab-grown meat. Governor DeSantis’ website made the announcement, asserting that Florida “is taking action to stop the World Economic Forum’s goal of forcing the world to eat lab-grown meat and insects.” Perhaps as an attempt at proving the claim about insects, the page links to a World Economic Forum page that makes a case for using insects as protein and fertilizer.

In his speech about the law, DeSantis asserted that “Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals…” He was backed up by Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson who claimed that Florida farmers and American agriculture need to be protected from lab-grown meat because it is “a disgraceful attempt to undermine our proud traditions and prosperity, and is in direct opposition to authentic agriculture.”

As people often think eating bugs is gross, this is a smart culture war move. But like almost every battle of the culture war, this is a fight against a largely imaginary enemy. While the World Economic Forum and some “global elites” have pushed for synthetic meat and using bugs in agriculture, the World Economic Forum obviously cannot force the world to eat insects or synthetic meat. Even if states did nothing, people can obviously just decline to buy and consume foods they do not want.  As such, the law protects the people of Florida from nothing (except the right to choose whether to buy lab-grown meat). It is like passing a law banning the sale of exercise equipment in Florida and claiming that it is to protect Floridians from the World Health Organization and the “global elites” forcing people to exercise.

Somewhat ironically, the passage of the law simply confirms that the WEF and the “global elite” lack the power to bend the people of the United States to its will regarding bugs and lab-grown meat. After all, if they had the power to force people to do this, a single law passed in Florida would hardly suffice to stop them. But even if the “global elite” had the power to force the United States to bend to its will (but somehow not enough power to overcome a single law), they would not be able to make people eat lab-grown meat because there is not enough of it.

Currently, lab-grown meat is not a viable product that could be mass-produced to be forced onto people. That is, even if the “global elite” wanted Floridians to eat lab-grown meat, there is not enough of it. Even the most optimistic estimate from proponents of alternative proteins is that about 5% of protein will be coming from such sources in 2030. As such, the law protects the people of Florida from what amounts to nothing. But one might argue, lab-grown meat presents a significant future threat to Florida, and this justifies the law.

One obvious reply is that lab-grown meat does not seem to present a meaningful danger to consumers. While contamination of meat is always a concern, there is no reason to think that lab-grown meat would be more likely to cause food borne illness than conventional meat. After all, lab-grown meat will not be anywhere near animal feces. One could, of course, raise various sci-fi concerns about synthetic meat, but it seems unlikely that lab-grown meat would present any such dangers in the real world. This is not to deny that lab-grown meat could be contaminated, that is always a concern in our woeful system of food safety. But it is not a special concern for lab-grown meat.

There is also the obvious fact that unlike with products like cigarettes, vapes, or pain killers, lab-grown meat does not have any addictive properties or appeal that would cause people to become addicted. As such, there seems to be no meaningful harm that this law would protect consumers from. Unless one thinks that choice is harmful. While the above has focused on the consumer, Simpson seems focused on the agricultural businesses.

As noted above, Simpson claims that lab-grown meat is an attempt to undermine “proud traditions.” This is, of course, the fallacy of appeal to tradition. That something is traditional provides no proof that it is true or good; it also provides no proof that it is false or bad. It just means that it has been around for a while–and many bad things, like murder, have been around a while. But also, good things, like ice cream, have been around for a while. Also, as with almost any appeal to tradition, it is reasonable to inquire about which tradition is being appealed to. After all, agriculture has changed radically even in recent years thanks to new technologies, genetic engineering, and chemicals. But what about the matter of prosperity?

While the Republican party has traditionally professed a love for the competition of the free market and the importance of freedom of choice, this law is clearly aimed at using the state to crush the competition before the contest begins. Some might see this sort of thing as the state “picking winers and losers” or even socialism. It is most certainly not free market capitalism. I won’t offer any free market arguments of my own here, I will simply refer the reader to decades of Republican arguments in favor of the free market and freedom of consumer choice. In this case, the free-market arguments have merit: the lab-grown meat vs traditional meat fight should be settled by consumer choice and not the fiat of the ruling elite of Florida who have the authoritarian goal of preventing this freedom of choice.

Continuing with prosperity, while a successful lab-grown meat product might have a slight impact on traditional meat sales, this would still mean that companies would be making profits and paying workers. This would not lead to a general economic downturn, although it could result in a slight decline in profits for traditional meat companies. But I suspect it would also shift profits away from companies that sell existing meat alternatives, such as tofu. But, as past Republicans would have argued, this is just the competitive market of products. As such, the law is clearly aimed at protecting the elites of the meat industries from competition, under the mask of protecting the people of Florida from a nefarious global elite. As such, this is just an anti-competition law protecting a traditional industry from a possible competitor. This does show that they learned their lesson from what happened to milk: when given a choice, some consumers will opt for vegan or vegetarian options. Hence, they have taken action to try to protect meat–this indicates  the meat industry is worried that it would lose this free-market competition.

Simpson’s final point does raise an interesting metaphysical issue about the nature of authentic agriculture. While “authentic” is a rhetorical term, especially given the highly technological and chemical nature of modern agriculture, one can raise the reasonable question of whether lab-grown meat is meat. This will be addressed in an upcoming essay.