A friend recently suggested I might like a Facebook page devoted to an organization whose goal is to create lab-grown, or cultured, meat. That friend was wrong.
Because I do not support this idea, I won’t link to that page lest anyone think I’m in favor of it (there are several players in that market – my opposition is not to any specific organization but to the idea itself as I will make clear in this essay). However, I would like to share my thoughts on lab-grown/cultured/“clean” meat and welcome comments and conversation on the subject. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to this product throughout as “cultured meat”.
I see the cultured meat endeavor as problematic in several ways (this is not a comprehensive list by any means).
- The current process for creating cultured meat involves the use of fetal calf serum, a product obtained by sticking a needle in the still-beating heart of calf fetuses removed from cows who were pregnant at slaughter (though one potential manufacturer says they’re seeking plant-based alternatives to this gruesomeness). Therefore, this is just another by-product of the exploitative dairy industry and not something I would remotely support. Also, if some companies eventually use plant-based sources but others continue using fetal calf serum, there’s really no telling which cultured meat is ending up on the consumer’s plate.
- While it’s true that cultured meat could become an available alternative to the traditional consumption of animal corpses (once it passes the point of being a mere novelty item, if that even happens), this a) does nothing to educate the public that meat and all other animal flesh and secretions are an unnecessary inclusion in human diets and b) helps maintain the status quo and reinforces the paradigm that sees non-human individuals as “things” (objectification) and demands they be enslaved and used as human resources for their bodies and secretions.
- The availability of cultured meat does not mean that people will automatically choose to consume it and eschew traditionally-obtained meat just because it’s there. Non-vegans already look askance at vegan food – fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, legumes – and think what we eat is weird even though it’s the most natural stuff in the world. Do we really think these same people who handle tofu like they’re trying to defuse a bomb are going to embrace “meat” made in a laboratory or some other industrial setting? As far back as 2013, the animal agriculture industry was already coming up with propaganda designed to shame “real men” into continuing to eat yummy slaughtered animals and not something grown in a Petri dish (the linked article contains the first use I’ve ever seen of the euphemism “live beef animal”. They could’ve saved keystrokes and some of my brain cells by simply saying “cow”. Talk about the language of denial…).
- For those non-vegan consumers who do decide they enjoy cultured meat because its texture and taste are similar to traditional meat, what happens when they go shopping or out to eat and the establishments are fresh out of cultured meat, as is bound to frequently happen? Do you think they’re going to order a nice vegan entree instead… or will they opt for a traditional hamburger, steak, pork chop or chicken breast since this is what they’re used to? Because no one educated them about veganism since organizations were too busy trying to make the unacceptable acceptable by creating meat-that-isn’t-meat-but-is-really-meat-but-sorta-isn’t-really-meat-but-is-just-like-meat-but-oh-I-give-up, these consumers will continue purchasing someone’s slaughtered remains and again create demand for the continued exploitation and execution of vulnerable individuals of other species.
The image above illustrates two problems with cultured meat. One is that without a change in the public mindset and attitude toward the use of non-human individuals as “things” to satisfy their desires (said change can be achieved through vegan education), cultured meat will often be passed up in favor of society’s traditional consumption of animal flesh. Another is evident in the “How It Works” diagram in which we see that “Tissue is taken from animal’s muscle”, reinforcing the idea yet again that it is morally acceptable to take that which does not belong to us, in this case a part (size notwithstanding) of a nonconsenting individual’s body to serve our own purposes. Even young children understand intuitively that when something of theirs is taken without their consent, something unfair has happened. It is a sad indictment of our society that when the majority of these children become adults, they will not only accept larger injustices but promote, condone and profit from them despite intuitively knowing that such actions are morally unjustifiable.
In a sense, cultured meat is to traditional meat what methadone is to heroin – a healthier-seeming (on the surface, anyway) alternative promoted as a harm-reduction solution while in reality just creating its own new set of problems. As anyone who’s detoxed from both heroin and methadone will attest, methadone is harder to kick by far (with nearly 40 known withdrawal symptoms that last… and last… and last…) and just another substance on which to form a dependency. Doesn’t it seem logical to avoid the potential negative consequences of both by not using either when there’s absolutely no reason to have them in one’s body in the first place?
There is one particular organization promoting cultured meat (again, I refuse to post a link here and risk even inadvertently promoting such a thing, but feel free to contact me for details if you’d like) co-founded by silver-tongued, supposedly “vegan” hucksters whose combined resumes offer a road map through the very heart of Animal Welfareland, if such organizations even have hearts. These individuals are standing on the ground floor of what may end up being a very lucrative venture, one that will at best do absolutely nothing to further the cause of justice for non-human animals and at worst set the cause back immeasurably. Where it will be productive is in lining their pockets, as they seem to have found a way to become rich(er) at the expense of the animals they purport to want to help. Here’s what one of the co-founders had to say on the subject:
“…we don’t necessarily need to convince people to make decisions based on ethics if we can simply make products that taste as good, cost less, and are equally convenient.”
Uh… I’m sorry… what??? Are you saying we need to put ethics last behind trivial desires like palate pleasure, personal finances and convenience? Why, that sounds a lot like the reasons people choose to consume products of animal exploitation in the first place! And if you believe that people are going to start living vegan simply because you provide them with great tasting alternatives, you’re in denial so deep you’re drowning in it. So, where do the animals figure into this agenda of yours?
“…making a positive difference for the environment, their own health, and animals.” “…a big win for consumers, for our planet, and for animals.” “…people who are devoting their entire lives to alleviating global poverty or saving the world from the effects of climate change or helping animals.”
Ah, I see – the animals come last, as I would expect from someone whose behavior has reeked of speciesism for as long as I can remember. Tell me – since you’ve spent decades working for organizations that are supposedly devoted to animal rights, wouldn’t you agree that the animals’ need for justice is of paramount importance and the rewards we receive by abstaining from animal exploitation are simply positive side effects of finally doing the right thing and not a goal in and of themselves?
“…if we don’t eat animals, we’re likely to live longer and better lives…” “…not eating animals, which is good for their health, will have an immediate and positive effect on our health, too.”
Hmm, guess not. That’s an amazing piece of understatement, by the way, that “…not eating animals… is good for their health”. If anything ever went without saying, it would be that. Alright then, what exactly is your focus?
“The [organization] is focused on using markets and technology to compete with animal-based meat, dairy, and eggs.”
“Perhaps most critically, I believe that compassion for other animals, which is perhaps best exhibited by refusing to consume them, will lead to a deeper spiritual health and a clearer conscience, which will also improve our mental and emotional health.”
“Perhaps” twice in the same sentence? That’s equivocation followed by equivocation. If you were on trial and refused to take a stand twice, I believe you’d be held in contempt of court. As for the “clearer conscience”, I have to wonder how clear one’s conscience could be when one purposely chooses personal profit over ethics. I do understand how you, as a career speciesist, would mistake injustice for a lack of compassion and how that would leave you confused as to what a refusal to consume animals (and their secretions, which you seem to have overlooked) signifies. The welfarist statement you’ve made that “compassion for other animals… is perhaps best exhibited by refusing to consume them” would indicate that you believe there is a spectrum of other, not-quite-best-but-still-acceptable methods of showing “compassion”, such as increasing the size of cages in which non-human individuals are confined against their wills, more “humane” slaughter techniques and other “improvements” (alterations, really) in animal slavery that simultaneously help maximize profits for suppliers and maximize donations for animal welfare groups. Not unexpectedly, these are the types of campaigns in which the groups for whom you’ve worked specialize. Statements like this clearly identify the problem with focusing on “compassion” and animal abuse rather than justice and animal use, and equivocation naturally follows. What also naturally follows is that individuals with such attitudes would gravitate toward, work for and create organizations that reflect a similar misunderstanding of the problem and its solution. After all, water seeks its own level and like attracts like.
It’s well past time we stopped looking for every way in the world to get people to stop exploiting non-human animals a little bit at a time (a position and strategy that would rightly be seen as completely unacceptable if the exploited victims were human) and discounting the one that’s actually most effective – clear, consistent, non-violent vegan education. It works.
The simplest and most immediate action one can take to stop the violent oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our global society – non-human individuals – is to start living vegan. There are no valid reasons not to; there are only morally unjustifiable excuses to hide behind.
Here are links to a two-part podcast (approximate duration 23 minutes) and one other from Vegan Trove that delves deeper into the problems with this idea:
Clean Meat” Part 1: Some Ethical Considerations
“Clean Meat” Part 2: Some Practical Implications and Unforeseen Outcomes”
The Science of “SuperMeat” : If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is | Vegan Trove