Privatized Genetics: Lab Grown Meat and the Ethics of Ownership

Who Owns the Cells that Make Lab-Grown Meat?

An article in the guardian discusses the private ownership of the cell lines used to produce lab-grown meat. These cell lines are significant because they are able to reproduce themselves indefinitely in the right environment. So these cells, put into a nutrient bath and given some sort of scaffolding on which to grow, are the things that become the bulk of the lab-grown meat, the actual stuff we'll all be eating in a decade or two if these companies succeed. Given how foundational they are to the whole process, it's obvious why a company that has invested millions of dollars in isolating the most effective cell lines wouldn't want to share them freely with competitors, just like Ford doesn't freely share its research with Toyota.

But as understandable as this is, there's something strange about owning genetics. A line of cells, isolated from a particular cow, sequenced, and named, is still substantially different from a technical advance in the functioning of a truck's transmission in that the cells exist in the cow prior to their discovery and continue to exist afterwards. In their original context they even have something to do with the production of meat.

I don't want to overstate the significance of this, since I can see the pragmatic argument that if private companies are to pursue research they must be confident of a return on the investment they put into it, however weird it is to own a genetic sequence extracted from a cow. But the ocean of money needed to even think about starting a lab-grown meat company relates to my second point.

Should Governments Fund Lab-Grown Meat?

The subtext - and, at the end, the text - of the article is that governments should invest in databases of cell lines and otherwise encourage research into lab-grown meat. The justification for this is that meat consumption is a huge driver of climate change (an oversimplification), that lab-grown meat will have a smaller carbon footprint (plausible but unproven, since lab-grown meat is not yet widely marketable) and that livestock are a leading cause of deforestation and other undesirable land use, which is undeniably true. The last of these is the most pressing issue, and while I certainly don't know how to solve it, I am convinced that direct action to preserve vulnerable ecosystems has a better chance of working than a bank shot involving trying to make lab-grown meat so cheap that it collapses the global market for meat, and assuming this will so effectively undermine demand that farmers will stop burning the Amazon, rather than continuing to burn it to plant soy.

It's convenient for companies to claim altruism, and to claim these altruistic motives justify government intervention. At the same time they are undeniably acting like the for-profit companies they are, guarding their proprietary cell lines and non-bovine nutrient sources. They are already big business as startups go, and they aim to become some of the biggest businesses in the world. Perhaps this is inevitable - virtually every one of the hundreds of brands in a food store is owned by one of just a handful of conglomerates - and the meat industry is even more consolidated.

But we should be clear that in throwing in for lab-grown meat governments would be taking a stand against small farmers. Perhaps there is a way the transition to a lab-grown future could be managed so as to preserve farms that produce real food in a manner without degrading the environment, but nothing about the cozy relationship between big food and regulators makes me think this is likely.

The Worst Case Scenario

It's far too soon to panic, but if I squint I can envision this going very wrong. I hope to write about it at greater length in the future, but as of July, 2021 it remains a very real possibility that lab-grown meat will never be competitive in an open market. While it's certain to get cheaper, there may be a hard limit placed by the costs of bioreactors, sterilizing industrial amounts of equipment, developing and maintaining cell lines, and sourcing vast amounts of nutrients, on top of all the distribution challenges that come with any food product. For all its manifold issues, animal agriculture produces meat at an incredibly low cost, one that lab-grown meat might not be able to beat.

What I fear is government putting increasing amounts of money into getting lab-grown meat onto shelves, such that it ends up in a situation similar to ethanol and the corn crop. Right now 40% of America's mammoth corn crop is wasted inefficiently making ethanol, a boondoggle that only continues because the government mandates and funds it. As the lab-grown meat chugs down the track I fear a similar dynamic will develop, with the government ensuring at great expense that some percentage of the chicken breast in supermarkets come from labs, while imposing in various financial and regulatory ways on farms like mine, which lack the political clout to resist.

As I say, that's very speculative, and I don't want to be alarmist. But I do wish that the focus was more on building a food system with more rather than less distributed ownership and more rather than less accountability to the communities it serves.

 

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