Mass Consumption: Islam and Lab-Grown Meat

Bill Gates, in an interview with MIT Technology Review this past February, declared that “all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.” People in rich countries consume more meat, and there is growing concern about how this affects their health and the environment.

In recent years, movements shedding light on animal consumption and the abuses of the meat industry, as well as calls for eliminating or reducing meat from one’s diet have grown, and commensurately within the American Muslim community. Though vegans and vegetarians are a minority in the United States, rapidly developing alternatives and their accessibility has made it a popular lifestyle. YouTube is replete with recipes using creative vegan substitutes or the like. Cultured meat (also known as lab-grown meat) has hit the news as another alternative meat, but one more authentic in taste and environmentally friendly. One company even claims that, compared to the current meat industry, “its cultured products will take 99% less land, 96% less freshwater and emit 80% less greenhouse gases.”

How do Muslim scholars approach this? For anything biotechnology-related, there are a number of resources in English. One is Shaykh Musa Furber’s papers and articles.

Now, cultured meat poses multiple problems for Muslims, but the obvious one is ritual slaughter. For example, the animal sacrifice and distribution of meat for Eid Al-Adha is a religious obligation for every Muslim who can afford it, and recommended on other occasions like the birth of a child. In his paper “Intensive Animal Farming: Wrongs & Responsibilities” (available in both Arabic and English), Furber criticizes intensive farming, outlining our responsibilities in correcting the mistreatment of animals. He writes:

Completely eliminating the consumption of animal products is neither a viable or desirable option for Muslims, since animal sacrifice is involved in several religious rites and occasions. Additionally, moderate consumption of meat is a Prophetic norm (Sunnah). So one really cannot make a case that the Sacred Law calls for vegetarianism or that it is in line with the Sunnah. Instead, something must be done to ensure that our consumption is within the limits set by religious norms and sound medical advice, and that the animals we consume are raised according to the Sacred Law.

In summary, calls to eliminate meat from one’s diet that stem from the assumption that consuming animal meat is inherently immoral or unethical are wrong. Allah swt has made certain meat halal (lawful) to consume. The issue lies in the meat industry’s maltreatment of animals. While a blanket replacement of animal meat is neither possible nor ideal, some point to lab-grown meat as a third-option for consumption: a way to reduce animal meat consumption without engaging in current exploitative practices. There are several challenges to overcome in this regard. Namely, Furber asks, “Can lab-grown meat solve the fiqh [jurisprudential] challenges?”

A less obvious but still pertinent problem with synthetic meat is the source of the cells. Lab-grown meat uses tissue taken from a living animal. For meat to be halal, it can’t be severed from a living animal, otherwise it falls under maytah, defined as carrion or dead flesh, which is haram (unlawful) to consume. [1] This also renders the end-result sample of meat that only contains replicated cells (i.e. not the original sample of living cells) unlawful, and the American Fiqh Academy (AFA) states in a ruling on lab-grown meat that in this case, even replicated cells would be haram “because the Islamic slaughtering process to purify this meat never took place.” [1]

Furber mentions the initial sample of cells would have to be sourced “from an animal that was slaughtered in a manner that renders the animal lawful for human consumption,” not from a living animal. [2] In this case, there is an already slaughtered animal and meat to be eaten. However, if there was a permissible way to use a halal sample of initial cells to grow more meat, hypothetically one could reduce the overall number of animals consumed.

In addition to a lawful source, cultured meat also needs to be grown using techniques and products that are permissible, and both the authors of the ruling and Furber state that blood-serum is haram to consume. [1][2] The blood-serum they refer to is Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which most companies use to grow cultured meat. This practice is contentious even outside the Muslim community due to ethical concerns regarding its source: bleeding out the fetus of a pregnant cow. FBS contains more growth factors than adult bovine serum, making its properties crucial to growing a cell culture. As the name implies, growth factors promote cell growth, a necessary mechanism because cells are volatile in vitro and susceptible to apoptosis, self-death.

In his Slate exposé “The Gruesome Truth About Lab-Grown Meat,” Nick Thieme critiques the lab-grown meat industry’s use of FBS, writing,

But, even though FBS is currently convenient, using it defeats the purpose of cultured meat in an extremely obvious way: You’re still slaughtering cows. Why not just eat the meat from the cow instead of going through a laborious process that turns cow cells into other cow cells?…in fact, when it comes to the moral argument, slaughtering and extracting fetal blood from an unborn cow is possibly a more disturbing way to get meat.

To solve this issue, some companies have reportedly made headway in formulating cultured meat products without the use of FBS. The efforts to develop alternatives are just beginning to emerge, especially as they could save companies millions due to the hefty price tag for FBS.

In addition to fiqhi concerns beyond what is mentioned here, there are also other considerations to make: affordability, effects on agricultural communities and supply chains, consequences on health, and impact of shifting food dependency to Silicon Valley tech companies and their intellectual properties, etc. Discussions around lab-grown meat will inevitably circle back to the above brief mention of food consumption lifestyles, and the length Muslims go in assuring that what is put into the body is within the bounds of Islamic law. Muslims are not alone in their concerns: the Jewish community also defines meat by its slaughter, and is similarly working to address whether lab-grown meat would be kosher.

While cultured meats currently on the market do not meet (pun intended) the criteria to be considered halal, scholars and researchers continue to keep a keen eye on new advances. Concurrently, rather than focusing on alternative meats as a permanent solution, we must be active in improving the living conditions of animals and rectifying harm so that their rights are fulfilled both in life and when slaughtered with the name of Allah ﷻ, honoring them as a source of halal nourishment.

Works Cited:

  1. “Test-Tube Turkey: Ruling on Meat Grown in Labs.” American Fiqh Academy, 20 Aug. 2020, https://fiqhacademy.com/res07/
  2. Musa Furber. “Comment: ‘A New Lab-Grown Meat Startup May Have Overcome a Key Barrier to Making Meat without Slaughter.’” Musa Furber, 23 Apr. 2019, https://musafurber.com/2018/09/29/comment-a-new-lab-grown-meat-startup-may-have-overcome-a-key-barrier-to-making-meat-without-slaughter/

Photo by Philipp Kämmerer on Unsplash


About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is the Marketing Director of Traversing Tradition. She is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn. She is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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