Cultivated meat demonstrates the market’s ability to solve moral problems

Harrison Griffiths

January 23, 2023

The life of the libertarian vegetarian is often a lonely one. Vegetarianism is, for now, ‘left-coded’, inextricably linked to climate activism and nanny statist policies to manipulate diets. The fictional libertarian archetype from Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson, is as committed to his carnivore diet as he is to individual liberty.

Nevertheless, free markets and individual liberty are perfectly compatible with moral opposition to animal slaughter. In fact, one could go as far as suggesting that if we are to respect the liberty of humanity we should also, at least to some extent, respect the liberty of other sentient beings. 

Although it is true that markets help to co-ordinate the supply of meat, they can also play a pivotal role in reducing the demand. This is a gargantuan task: not only has meat been a staple food throughout human history, but it is also more popular than ever. Meat production quadrupled between 1961 and 2021, a corollary of the overall global increase in living standards since the mid-20th Century. If anything, humanity will demand more protein over the coming years. 

Persuasion is important, but moral lectures can also turn people away from reducing their meat consumption, particularly when the debate is so intertwined with political tribalism. A meat tax is also unlikely to be politically viable and would fall hardest on the poor. If we want to enact change on a mass scale, we must lower the costs associated with choosing not to eat meat. This should be about expanding consumer choice, not seeking to limit them.

New research by Institute of Economic Affairs’ Matthew Lesh highlights the potential of cultivated meat as a more ethical alternative to convention meat. Cultivated meat is grown from a small amount of animal cells and can create a food product that replicates the sensory profile of conventional meat. The production process requires no animal slaughter, not only making the product more ethical, but also diminishing other negative aspects of industrial farming, like carbon emissions and deforestation.

Singapore has approved the first cultivated meat product for sale, while the United States’ Food and Drug Administration just approved their first cultivated product. An astonishing $366 million was invested in American cultivated meat projects in just 2020, demonstrating the market’s ability to respond to demand for innovative meat substitutes. That demand certainly exists in Britain, as evidenced by a Food Standards Agency’s survey, which showed that over a third of Brits were willing to try lab-grown meat.

If the demand, investment, and technology exists for cultivated meat, why have we not seen new products rolled out in Britain? The answer is overburdensome regulation. Britain has retained the EU’s Novel Food Regulations (NFRs) after Brexit, a set of rules originally established in the late 1990s, when the panic around food-born illnesses like Mad Cow Disease and new technologies like GMOs were at their peak.

The novel food rules are based on a precautionary principle, meaning they evaluate new products based almost entirely on their risks, rather than their potential upsides. This results in a lengthy approval process for novel foods, taking an average of 35 months and costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. These delays, combined with the lack of certainty around regulatory requirements, increase the cost of bringing new products to market, costs which deter investment in innovative projects, and which are ultimately passed on to consumers.

Brexit gives the UK an opportunity to abandon these burdensome regulations and move towards achieving the Prime Minister’s aim of putting innovation at the heart of Britain’s economy. By continuing with the NFRs, the UK risks falling behind countries like Singapore, America, and Israel, where cultured meat products have already been approved.

Burdensome regulations on the approval of lab-grown meat are not the only example of state intervention hampering the cause of alleviating animal suffering. The government’s extensive agricultural subsidies are responsible for over 60 per cent of farm profits in England. This means that the state is effectively responsible for an overproduction of meat and other animal products in the UK.

Supporters of free markets and opponents of meat eating are thought of as belonging to opposite political tribes. However, cultivated meat innovation demonstrates the key role markets can play in reducing animal suffering. If we want to exploit the potential of lab-grown meat alternatives, the government must reduce the regulatory burden on the sector and allow the market to work.

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