Will stem cell hamburgers put us on track to producing kosher bacon? Photo by Dreamstime
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In order to keep the price of meat down and quantities of production up, farmers have developed methods for mass producing meat that are both cruel to animals and harmful to the environment. The method is known as factory farming.

Each full-grown chicken in a factory farm, where the majority of chickens are raised, has as little as six-tenths of a square foot of space. Because of the crowding, they often become aggressive and sometimes eat each other. Farmers deal with this by engaging in the painful practice of debeaking. Furthermore, due to genetic manipulation, 90 percent of broiler chickens have trouble walking – they’ve been packed so full of meat, they can barely stand up.

The mass production of meat also takes a toll on our environment. According to the USDA, animals in the U.S. meat industry produce 61 million tons of waste each year, which amounts to five tons for every U.S. citizen. “The pollution from animal waste causes respiratory problems, skin infections, nausea, depression and even death for people who live near factory farms,” it says, adding, “Livestock waste has been linked to six miscarriages in women living near a hog factory in Indiana.”

According to a recent study, chickens need to consume 2 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of meat. For beef cattle, the ratio is 10 to 1, which means we’re literally starving the earth by the beef we produce – shoving 10 kilograms of grain into just 1 kilogram of meat.

That beautiful South American beef, where the cows seemingly have so much freedom to roam, only causes greater problems for the environment. Cows take up a lot of space, and South American farmers create that space by burning down rainforests. According to the same study, “Tropical deforestation is responsible for about 15 percent of the world's global warming emissions and adversely affects the planet's biodiversity. The expansion of meat production, especially beef, has been a major driver of deforestation over the last 20 years, responsible for about 45 percent of the heat-trapping gases produced by deforestation … Cows produce extensive amounts of methane during the digestive process, a potent heat-trapping gas that exits the cow from both ends and causes about 23 times as much global warming per molecule as carbon dioxide. Large amounts of manure are also a leading cause of water pollution,” which in turn kills billions of fish.

If the Torah took on factory farming

I love meat. I eat meat, as long as it’s kosher. But, when God allowed us to rear animals, kill them and eat them, I’m not sure that this was what He had in mind! The Torah commands us to minimize animal discomfort, and commands us to take care of the environment. So, it seems that the Torah would have a lot to say against factory farming.

The greatest American halakhic authority of the last generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, didn’t need to argue that inhumane farming made meat unkosher. It was forbidden for other reasons, and thus he forbade veal that was kept supple by growing it in a box, and the force feeding of geese, forbidding us to buy that meat; not because it was unkosher, but because it was in violation of other Jewish laws (Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer vol. 4 responsa 92 part II). But these visionary rulings were specific to veal and foie gras, and have yet to be applied in practice to factory farmed meat across the board.

Just recently, scientists in Holland produced a hamburger from stem cells taken in a biopsy from a calf. Mark Post, one of the researchers involved in the project, estimates that from one biopsy like this, you’d eventually be able to produce 175 million quarter-pounders. Such a feat would normally require 440,000 cows. The ethical and environmental benefits in producing meat this way are immediately obvious. Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz summed it up by saying, “In addition to the massive potential for eliminating a huge amount of animal suffering, it seems the cultured meat may use around 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water, 45 percent less energy, and produce 96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat.”

But - as is often the case with new technology - the issue of stem cell meat raises a fascinating array of halakhic questions. Jewish law hasn’t had any truly authoritative legislators since the last Sanhedrin in the year 358. Instead, it evolves through successive layers of judicial (i.e. rabbinic) interpretation. So, we must interpret this ancient body of law in order to see what it would say about the production of cultured meat.

Given that it’s initially produced from an animal, Rabbi Menachem Genak argues that the animal will have to be kosher, and it will have to have been slaughtered in an appropriate fashion. But, like gelatine, once it has undergone so many processes and transformations, it may well lose its halakhic status as meat, and, like gelatine, may be classified as parve (available to eat alongside milk). This possibility has already excited many with the prospect of kosher cheeseburgers.

If for the general market stem cell meat is produced from a living animal, would this infringe the Noahide law, which even non-Jews are biblically mandated to keep, against eating the limb of a living animal? Was that law enacted to avoid cruelty to animals? If so, how can this cultured meat be considered an infringement - it’s much kinder than killing it! Is a small biopsy considered a limb? Is the burger that emanates from such a biopsy considered a limb? If the law isn’t merely against cruelty to animals, what is it against?

There are stories of miraculous meat in the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 59b, 65b). Sometimes this meat fell straight down from heaven, and sometimes it seems to have been miraculously created by people. The great Rabbi Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) argued that this meat wouldn’t need slaughter, and could even be eaten limb from limb whilst the animal is alive, for normal laws simply don’t apply to it (Shalah Parshas Vayeishev). Perhaps the same could be said of meat created not by rabbis but by scientists. Perhaps it wouldn’t need slaughter after all, neither for Jews nor for non-Jews. Perhaps this could even be the route to kosher pork! These issues will be resolved by halakhists much great than me.

As far as I’m concerned, we’re standing on the precipice of interesting times: times in which the kosher meat industry might finally fall in line with the ethics of the Bible; and times in which the ancient legal system of the rabbis shows its vitality as we apply it to new situations in imaginative ways.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.