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Cultivated Meat and Religious Law

How four of the world’s major religions are approaching the question of cultivated meat




Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, who make up almost half of the world’s population, could support explosive growth in the burgeoning cultivated meat industry. These traditions all have specific rules and customs around meat consumption. Therefore, it is important to understand how they might relate to cellular agriculture, aka cultivated meat, as a major source of meat.

Today, companies worldwide are competing to become among the first to offer meat developed from animal cells. This field builds on advances in biotechnology to develop meat and other protein-rich products such as milk and eggs. Rather than raising animals for slaughter, dairy and egg production, animal cells are grown exponentially in bioreactors to replicate these products.

Religious hurdles could cause the market to develop much slower than expected. However, one jurisdiction, Singapore, which is a melting-pot of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, has already approved cultivated meat for mass consumption. Other countries are currently working on initial approvals and are expected to follow suit in the coming years. Hopefully Singapore will be able to take the lead once more by showing the world how religious hurdles can be resolved.

This analysis will address both top-down questions of the directions being taken by religious leaders and bottom-up results of surveys of lay adherents to these religions regarding their intentions to consume cultivated meat.




Judaism and cultivated meat

Judaism lays out a set of strict dietary laws known as “kashrut.” This includes prohibitions on certain species of land and marine animals, only consuming animals slaughtered by a certified kosher slaughterer (fish need only have fins and scales ― no special procedures), and not mixing dairy with meat.

Jewish authorities are generally optimistic about the kosher approval of cultivated meat. Disagreement exists mainly on the scope of the products to be approved and begs the question, Will cultivated meat even be considered meat for purposes of Jewish law?


How Judaism could view cultivated meat as equal to conventional meat

Under the microscope, cultivated meat is expected to be similar or even identical to conventional meat. Both, in fact, originate (though through very different methods) from animals. Therefore, cultivated meat might be characterized as meat under Jewish law. This approach is expected to require that the original cells be harvested from animals slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. This approach would likely require that cultivated meat be kept separate from, and not consumed with, milk products.


Why Judaism may not view cultivated meat as meat at all

Jewish authorities may determine that since cultivated meat lacks the procedural aspects of conventional meat, i.e., the process of raising and slaughtering animals, it is not considered meat for Jewish ritual purposes. This can be based on one of a number of approaches, such as relying on the fact that the overwhelming majority of cells that form cultivated meat have been grown in bioreactors and never existed in an animal, or determining that products grown from embryonic stem cells extracted from a fertilized egg cannot be considered meat, inter alia as they lack the potential to become an animal (as the Chief Rabbi of Israel ruled in January 2023). Therefore, meat-related restrictions, such as prohibited species, the requirement for kosher slaughter, and even the prohibition of mixing meat with milk, would all be deemed irrelevant. And potentially, a greater variety of cultivated meat species would be available to adherents of Judaism.

Other issues remain to be settled, such as the question of whether cells harvested from a live animal violate the Jewish prohibition of eating a limb from a living animal. As this is traditionally considered an animal cruelty issue, it is likely to become an irrelevancy through the use of cultivated meat. In any case, the problem can also be solved by requiring the cells to come from a ritually slaughtered animal.




Islam and cultivated meat

All religions with dietary restrictions will need to deal with the question of cultivated meat using ingenuity and creativity in the absence of historical guidance regarding this novel food category. Islam is no exception.

Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic organization (over 95 million members) in the world’s largest Muslim country, ruled in September 2021 that cells obtained from living animals and cultivated in a bioreactor is haram, or forbidden for consumption. Building on this, scholars in Pakistan (the world’s second-largest Muslim country), have ruled that cultivated meat is permissible only if the original cells come from halal-slaughtered animals based on the Sharia-compliant process. The process includes the severing of the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe of a healthy animal followed by the draining of all blood.

Similarly, it is generally accepted that, in order for cultivated meat to be halal, no blood or animal-based serum may be used in the production process (see below for further discussion).

All fish are considered halal with no need for special slaughtering processes. Therefore, it is expected that there will be very few restrictions on cultivated fish (being developed by a number of companies worldwide) that would affect the halal consumer.

Muslims surveyed have shown enthusiasm for cultivated meat products with between about half to two thirds finding the idea appealing when it comes to beef, poultry, lamb and goat meat but only (understandably) less than 30% when asked about cultivated pork.





Hinduism and cultivated meat

Ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, is often interpreted as requiring vegetarianism. This is not explicit, however, in Hindu texts or as a universal interpretation. Hence, Hindus are more likely to be flexitarian than strictly vegetarian.

With a focus on nonviolence, vegetarian Hindus are likely to see cultivated meat as a way of avoiding harming animals and could adopt it as a nonviolent dietary choice, in particular for species other than beef because of the sacredness of the cow. Even though cultivated beef avoids harming cows, there might still be a psychological barrier to consumption, similar to how Muslims and Jews might approach cultivated pork.

Hindus surveyed have expressed a preference in theory for cultivated meat over slaughtered meat. A majority of those surveyed eat poultry, lamb or goat and a larger majority expressed interest in eating cultivated versions of these meats. Beef and pork were in the minority and a larger minority expressed interest in their cultivated versions.

Ayurveda, the traditional medical philosophy practiced by a large majority of people in India and Nepal, classifies meat as heavy to digest and suggests that it should be eaten sparingly, if at all. According to this approach, even in the absence of negative energy in the meat caused by animal suffering, the dietary recommendation remains unchanged ― and it is not unique to Ayurveda, of course. It is true of all those who oppose meat consumption based on strict dietary considerations, as opposed to ethical, environmental and religious considerations.

Such dietary objections to meat would also be valid for cultivated meat since the objective is to replicate conventional meat products. But the benefits that cultivated meat offers as a solution to environmental and ethical concerns could impact religious considerations. In any case, Hindu dietary customs combined with the positive attitude of surveyed Hindus towards cultivated meat suggests that cultivated meat could find an enthusiastic home in Hindu communities.


Buddhism and cultivated meat

Many practicing Buddhist monks refrain from eating meat, but these are a small percentage of Buddhists overall. All types of meat are generally acceptable to Buddhists. Surveys have shown that Buddhists on average prefer slaughtered meat to cultivated meat across all major species. Nonetheless, between 60% and 80% (depending on animal species) of Buddhists have reported positive reactions to the idea of cultivated meat.


Summary

Religion is certainly not a primary reason for encouraging or supporting the development of cultivated meat. The impact of this industry is expected be transformational with respect to addressing a number of pressing global issues, such as environmental crises, animal cruelty and food security, especially in regions where either climate, population density or limited land resources makes livestock farming untenable, e.g., parts of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia.

However, positive reactions to most types of cultivated meat by a majority of adherents to the world’s major religions provides encouragement that a substantial market will develop for cultivated meats worldwide. Notable exceptions could be pork among Muslims, Jews and Hindus and beef among Hindus. Rather than being a barrier to this development, the world’s largest religions may become leading proponents in this new food revolution.


The article was written by Avraham Hampel, VP of Corporate Development at Steakholder Foods.


Sources:

Bryant CJ. Culture, meat, and cultured meat. J Anim Sci. 2020 Aug 1;98(8):skaa172. doi: 10.1093/jas/skaa172. PMID: 32745186; PMCID: PMC7398566.

Hamdan MN, Post MJ, Ramli MA, Mustafa AR. Cultured Meat in Islamic Perspective. J Relig Health. 2018 Dec;57(6):2193-2206. doi: 10.1007/s10943-017-0403-3. PMID: 28456853.]

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