What is the most important technological innovation of our time? At first, I would think of the development of artificial intelligence, because this will help us in many ways, solving a lot of important problems. However, artificial intelligence has also its risks. So let’s think of another technological breakthrough that has no risks but very high potential benefits. My number 1 would be: the development of cell culture and tissue engineering, i.e. growing animal or human cells, tissues and organs without the whole animal or human bodies.
Why is this technology important? First, in the food sciences, it allows to grow meat and other animal products, without the animals. Cellular agriculture includes the production of clean or cultured meat: muscle tissue that has the exact same taste and structure as animal meat. Even die hard meat eaters have to admit that cultured meat is a perfect substitute for animal meat. Therefore, it can replace animal meat and hence replace livestock farming that has a very high ecological and moral footprint. Each year 60 billion land animals die for their meat, and all those animals experience huge levels of suffering in the livestock industry. Cultured meat can avoid the miserable lives of billions of animals and hence avoid a huge amount of suffering and animal rights violations. And e can expect that the production of cultured meat has a lower ecological footprint than animal meat.
Second, with tissue engineering we can grow organs for patients who need new organs. There is an organ shortage, and sometimes animals are used for organ transplantations. With artificially grown organs, patients can be saved without sacrificing animals.
Third, in the medical sciences this technology allows to develop human-on-a-chip models that can replace a lot of animal experiments. Millions of animals are used to test the effectiveness of new drugs and the safety of new substances. A human-on-a-chip contains a chip with all the relevant tissues of a human body, and these chips can be used to test new substances. These models use tissues that are chemically and biologically identical to human tissues and therefore they can be more reliable than animal models.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly in the long run: cultured meat can be useful in future efforts to decrease wild animal suffering. Predation in nature causes a lot of suffering, due to painful early deaths of billions of prey animals. Cultured meat is a perfect substitute to feed predator animals, because it doesn’t require the killing of animals and it contains the exact same essential nutrients contained in animal meat that predators need to survive. In the far future, intervening in nature and providing cultured meat to predator animals can be effective to protect biodiversity (predator animals do not have to go extinct) and at the same time improve wildlife well-being (prey animals do not have to be killed and eaten and their populations can be controlled in much more ethical ways using animal-friendly contraceptive methods). In the short run, we can feed our domestic carnivorous animals (cats and dogs) with cultured meat.
Taking these considerations together, from an effective altruist point of view it is worthwhile to invest in the development of tissue engineering in general and cellular agriculture in particular. Once these technologies are developed, they can help all future human and animal generations, save billions of lives and avoid billions of years of suffering. Therefore, I increase my donations to New Harvest, SuperMeat and The Good Food Institute.
(About that other important technological innovation, artificial intelligence: you can donate to MIRI, an organization that researches the safety of artificial intelligence.)