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Once we have lab-grown meat, will we still need animal advocacy?

Technological innovation has a role to play in advancing moral progress, but so do ethical arguments.

Once we have lab-grown meat, will we still need animal advocacy?
[Photos: Lynn_Bystrom/iStock, gorodenkoff/iStock]
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Cell-cultured meat—that is, real meat grown from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals, also referred to as “cell-based meat,” “cultured meat,” and “cultivated meat,” among other names—is having a moment. In 2016, San Francisco startup Memphis Meats released a video of the world’s first cell-cultured meatball getting fried up in a pan. In 2018, Berkeley-based New Age Meats let journalists taste the first pork sausage grown in a lab. And at the end of last year, Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken nuggets made their world debut on a restaurant menu in Singapore. Once considered science fiction, reserved only for members of the Star Trek universe, meat à la in vitro is poised to become available to mere Earthlings across the globe.

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For many animal advocates—including me—this is welcome news.

“Here’s a technology designed to rehumanize us, putting mankind’s brilliance and ingenuity in service to our gentler side,” writes Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy in National Review. “Gone, as this innovation reshapes the market, is any further claim of necessity for industrial animal farming, an enterprise that long ago slipped the boundaries of reasonable and conscientious practice . . .”

We know most people do choose food based on taste, cost, and accessibility, not moral calculations. So if cell-cultured meat is able to compete with industrial meat on those metrics, it will likely succeed in ending factory farming without needing to engage ethics at all.

In today’s U.S. factory farms, 9 billion land animals are raised annually in the cruelest of conditions. Pregnant pigs spend nearly four months in metal enclosures so small they are unable to turn around; chickens grow so abnormally large that their legs break under their own weight; and cows are branded, dehorned, and castrated, typically with no pain relief. And after a lifetime of torture, a gruesome slaughter awaits.

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For decades, activists have been disseminating information about this moral crisis to the general public—shouting into megaphones, handing out leaflets, delivering presentations in schools, sharing videos online, etc.—but for the most part, it has fallen on deaf ears. As I recently wrote in Wired, the USDA predicted that 2020 will be yet another year where more meat is consumed per person than ever before. Data from the think tank Sentience Institute shows that a lot of people know that the vast majority of farmed animals are not treated well. But with the exception of a few vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians, the many among them who could change their eating habits just don’t care enough to actually do so.

“It’s seductive to think that humans, when we learn about an abusive industry that we support, will recoil from our ways and change our behavior,” writes Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. “Sadly, our species rarely works that way.”

Is he right? And does that mean that we need to rely on technology instead of moral appeals to achieve these ethical aims?

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It certainly looks that way.

Consider what happened to horses in cities like New York. By the mid-19th century, horsecars (horse-drawn streetcars on rails) had become one of the most popular forms of transportation. By the 1870s, New Yorkers were taking over 100 million horsecar trips per year. And by 1880, there were upwards of 200,000 horses in the city. With two horses pulling up to 20 people over a four-hour shift, this naturally took a serious toll on their welfare. And as historian Joel A. Tarr details in American Heritage, it “was a common sight to see drivers and teamsters savagely lashing their overburdened animals.”

The plight of the horses might have gone unnoticed had it not been for Henry Bergh. Inspired by his observations of poor horse treatment, in 1866 he founded the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to fight on their behalf. Though Bergh did garner some support for his advocacy efforts, he was widely ridiculed because he was perceived as putting the interests of horses above humans.

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Indeed, in the end, it was another Henry who liberated horses from the streets of New York: Ford. His success in commercializing the car and internal combustible engine relieved the horses of their title as beasts of burden. In the words of entrepreneur Seth Goldman, “Despite Bergh’s impressive legacy, an argument can be made that his efforts to create a better quality of life for horses were dwarfed by the work of someone who had a reputation as a cold-hearted (not to mention, anti-Semitic) industrialist.”

When it comes to animal cruelty, this isn’t a unique example of technology prevailing over ethical appeals. We’ve saved whales by creating kerosene (eliminating the need to extract oil from their blubber), spared geese by developing pens (rather than plucking their feathers for quills), helped pigs by engineering insulin in bacteria (doing away with the practice of harvesting it from their pancreases), and so on.

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that many proponents of cell-cultured meat advocate for a similar approach. Take Bruce Friedrich, a staunch believer in market-based solutions. He used to work at PETA—where he engaged in stunts like streaking in front of Buckingham Palace. But feeling that his efforts were futile, stating “we’ve tried to convince the world to go vegan, and it has not worked,” he co-founded The Good Food Institute, where he now leverages capitalism to achieve the same ends. “Our goal is to take ethical considerations off the table . . .” Friedrich says. “In other words, we want to make the best choices the default choices because the products are delicious, price competitive, and convenient.”

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There are consequences to using technological solutions for problems that have a moral component.

This approach appeals to me. Cell-cultured meat seems to have the potential to make a difference for farmed animals in ways traditional activism has failed—it may even have the potential to end industrial animal agriculture altogether. We know most people do choose food based on taste, cost, and accessibility, not moral calculations. So if cell-cultured meat is able to compete with industrial meat on those metrics, it will likely succeed in ending factory farming without needing to engage ethics at all.

But there are also a few ways in which this strategy doesn’t quite sit right with me.

First, there’s no guarantee that cell-cultured meat will actually take off. While it’s reached major milestones so far, there are numerous obstacles to commercialization still in its path. For starters, some companies have gotten the price of their cell-cultured meat products down to about $100 to $150 per pound, but that’s far from price parity with industrial meat, which is more in the ballpark of $3 to $8 per pound. “Nothing is scaled yet, and it costs a lot to get expert staff to produce these experiments in a lab setting,” says Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that supports research on cell-cultured meat. “We’re talking about the first of everything, and the first of anything technological is very expensive—everything is laboratory grade, which is always more expensive than off the shelf.”

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Additionally, while cell-cultured meat companies have made numerous ground meat products—burgers, nuggets, patties, etc.—more complex cuts like steak and pork loin are only in the experimental stage. And then there’s getting regulatory approval, which Chase Purdy, author of Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech’s Race for the Future of Food, refers to as “the chief obstacle stopping people . . . from getting cell-cultured meat into markets around the globe and in front of customers.” That said, cell-cultured meat is reminiscent of technological solutions that have been successful in the past—so there’s a fair chance it’ll get to where it needs to be. Still, given these uncertainties, we’d be foolish not to keep ethics as a part of the conversation.

Second, leveraging moral arguments can help facilitate technological innovation. Though many entrepreneurs and investors are going to be motivated by the potential for financial gain, some will undoubtedly be motivated by the larger mission. Indeed, many of today’s cell-cultured meat companies were founded and backed by animal advocates. Given the uncertainties mentioned above, the more people working to innovate in this realm the better. And as with any new technology, in order to eventually reach the broader market, cell-cultured meat will need to attract a sufficient number of early adopters willing to pay a premium, making the ethical rationale clear will help with that.

Third, even if cell-cultured meat could become a widespread reality without moral appeals, there are consequences to using technological solutions for problems that have a moral component. If we end factory farming in this way, that will do nothing to prevent us from exploiting animals in all sorts of other ways that are beneficial to us—some existing (e.g., circuses, zoos, animal testing, etc.) and some yet to be imagined (which ironically may result from emerging technologies).

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What if settling only for the moral progress that comes as a side effect of technological innovation is not the best we can do? What if we should be asking for more?

This would essentially amount to what we have achieved in the past, which is effectively a game of ethical Whack-A-Mole: We’d be ending exploitation of one group of animals in one context, only to see another form of oppression remain or pop up. This will be because we haven’t been able to build a moral ethic of not harming animals. This is exemplified by the glaring fact that while horses may no longer be attached to streetcars in New York City, they still give tourists carriage rides in Central Park (albeit in much smaller numbers) and race on tracks Upstate, where they suffer many of the same afflictions and almost nobody bats an eye.

On the other hand, I recognize that many animals spared from suffering is much better than none. Plus, ending factory farming through technological innovation will make it easier for people to reckon with the relevant ethical considerations in a more comfortable way, because their actions will no longer be in contradiction with a moral view that takes animals’ interests into account. Still, this moral progress will largely be confined to the context of factory farming, which is a major caveat I don’t think we should overlook. What if settling only for the moral progress that comes as a side effect of technological innovation is not the best we can do? What if we should be asking for more?

After all, while there have been very few meaningful moral victories for animals—especially as it relates to their consumption (foie gras and veal being two notable exceptions; many consumers won’t eat them due to ethical concerns and some countries have even banned their production or sale)—we have seen moral progress for the sake of moral progress in certain instances regarding humans. In establishing that women are equal to men, child labor is wrong, and that slavery is immoral, we have moved the needle on crucial ethical issues at least partially (if not primarily) out of a commitment to advancing justice—even when doing so is counter to the economic interests of those in power.

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But even if building a robust animal ethic will be difficult, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s worth noting that when the aforementioned injustices—gender inequality, slavery, child labor, etc.—were the norm, most people either thought that changing the status quo was wildly optimistic, or they simply didn’t think about the possibility at all. Indeed, moral revolutions are by definition leaps in moral progress that were once thought to be impossible.

This also leads me to believe that relying solely on technologies like cell-cultured meat to disrupt the conventional meat market would be a strategic mistake. The reality is that there’s still a chance that continuing moral appeals could change the zeitgeist such that people begin to view all animals as being worthy of moral consideration. We may someday realize that Bergh and other activists like him were instrumental in planting the seeds that led to such a shift in consciousness.

So the takeaway for me is this: Both technology and ethics have a role to play in making substantive change for animals. Not only that, but they are more powerful when deployed together than independently. Regardless of how we allocate our resources between the two, we may never strike the exact right balance. But if we at least invest in both approaches to a meaningful degree, in time we may discover that the impossible was possible after all. Either way, I’ll be glad we tried.

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Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Brian is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017).