Bioethics in a Burger

This week a burger made entirely in a lab was sampled for the first time, and it apparently tasted pretty good. The meat was made from cow stem cells, taken in a normal harmless biopsy. These cells were then grown and eventually ground into a burger. The prospect of growing meat instead of farming livestock could revolutionize the food industry. Meat demand is predicted to double in the next 40 years, and livestock farming already takes up 70% of global agricultural capacity.

The potential to no longer have to raise and slaughter animals for meat has major ethical implications. Animal rights considerations of factory farming (and meat eating in general) would become moot. The environmental impact of livestock production, from methane release to deforestation for land, would be mitigated. The risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria created by antibiotic fed livestock would be greatly lowered. On the other hand, creating food sources that are outside the normal channels of nature create new practical and ethical problems.

What is the long term effect of creating our food in a lab? Over 60% of food products in U.S. supermarkets contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The long term environmental effects of designer seeds are yet to be fully understood. Many countries, including Japan, Germany, France, New Zealand, and Ireland, have restrictions or outright bans on the sale and cultivation of GMOs. Some in the U.S. have called for mandatory labeling laws for GMO products. However, a 2007 study found that only 5% of Americans would alter their purchasing habits as a result of concerns associated with using biotech products.

On the side of bioethics, the evolution of genetic engineering from plants, to animals, and even humans begs the question of whether we are playing God. Is this an extension of human evolution through intellect, or an instance of Icarus flying too close to the sun? The potential to cure diseases, lengthen life, and improve quality of life is already being manifested. Whether it is genetic screening in in vitro fertilization, genetically modified organs designed for transplant, or a 3D-printed functioning liver, we are beginning to see the positive impact of bioengineering on the human condition.

These developments are blurring the line between treatment and enhancement. Is there even an ethical difference between the two? We can easily see a world where human intelligence is artificially enhanced through bioengineering. With one simple procedure or drug you could double your thinking speed. We are already developing technology which can repair and modify neural connections. Is there a difference between expanding your mind this way and reading a book? Is there a difference between this and taking an antidepressant which chemically modifies your brain?

As illustrated by President Obama’s push to map the human brain, we are rapidly approaching a world in which thoughts can be observed and therefore modified. The potential for mind manipulation on a scale difficult to imagine is very real. Implanting and altering memories has existed for many years through hypnosis and other means, but new technology makes the practice much more precise and pointed. There are serious benefits to this technology in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and other psychological disorders has been shown in many studies.

Have we reached the point where we are the psychologist trying to diagnose himself? It is difficult to imagine how humans can develop such a complete understanding of their selves that they can consciously manipulate their own minds and bodies without unintended side effects. These unknown or even unknowable side effects need to be carefully considered as technology races ahead at breakneck speed. Will we use this technology to raise the human being to a new evolutionary form, to control others on a scale never before seen in human history, or simply to look young and pretty during our ever extending lifespans?

Additional Resources

CNN, Have a Taste of the World’s First Stem Cell Burger:

Illinois can Weigh In on GMO Labels:

Christian Today, Dead for 40 minutes:

How Stuff Works, How Cryonics Works:

United States Department of Agriculture, Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions:

Natural Revolution, List of Countries that Ban GMO Crops and Require GE Food Labels:

Daily Mail, Worlds First Test-Tube Artificial Beef ‘Googleburger’ Gets GOOD Review as It’s Eaten for the First Time:–Worlds-test-tube-artificial-beef-Googleburger-gets-GOOD-review-eaten-time.html

Wired, Bioengineers 3D Print Tiny Functioning Human Liver:

Technology Review, How to Build a Speech-Jamming Gun:

National Institutes of Health, Stem Cell Information:


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