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Technical fixes are good
Lab-grown meat is a win-win
Is the Great Stagnation over? Peter Thiel seems to think so. He recently told Forbes “... this is the first year of the 21st Century. This is the year in which the new economy is actually replacing the old economy.”
A recent blog from Caleb Watney lists a few recent technological breakthroughs. In the past few months, the world has made major progress in vaccines, driverless vehicles, virtual reality and nuclear energy.
You can now add to it no-kill, lab-grown chicken bites. Last week, Singapore became the first jurisdiction in the world to approve Eat Just’s no-kill cultured ‘chicken bites’ for sale.
Winston Churchill’s prediction that we would one day “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” is now a reality.
At the moment the technology is in its infancy, but it has massive potential to improve the world. A global shift to lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% and free up 99% of the land currently devoted to animal farming.
There are major health benefits too. The O’Neill Review into Anti-Microbial Resistance found “of the antibiotics defined as medically important for humans by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), over 70 percent (by weight) are sold for use in animals.” Cultured meat also reduces the risk of food poisoning due to contamination in the production process.
Probably the strongest case for cultured meat, however, is its potential to eliminate animal suffering. Many animals are raised in cramped conditions and suffer for most of their lives. Cultured meat, if sufficiently tasty and produced at scale, could replace factory farming altogether.
Yet, not everyone is welcoming this development with open arms. In an article published in The Guardian, Jenny Kleeman, author of Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex & Death, mounts a strange objection.
(Sidebar: It is very tempting to dunk on a writer based on an article’s headline, but we shouldn’t. Headlines are chosen by sub-editors, not writers. As they are there to grab your attention, they often are more provocative than the content they sit above. Take the headline for Kleeman’s article: “What's the point of lab-grown meat when we can simply eat more vegetables?” Kleeman’s argument isn’t that much better but there is still more to it.)
(Sidebar 2: Unrelated to this, but along similar lines, it really gets on my nerves when people attribute articles or papers to an organisation opposed to an individual. Newspapers, universities, and think tanks often lack a house view and publish a range of opinions. On Twitter, I often stumble across people saying “Even the Adam Smith Institute believes”, or “The Guardian thinks”. This might seem like a small thing, but we should avoid attributing opinions to people when they do not actually hold them. )
Some of her objections are fair enough. For example, the use of Foetal Bovine Serum (FSB) kind of undercuts the idea that they are no-kill (though they are apparently switching to a new plant-based growth medium). Similarly, the ‘ick factor’ is an issue. If cultured meat cannot approximate the taste and texture of farmed meat, then its benefits will be merely theoretical.
However, she loses me when she writes: “[cultured meat] is also an over-engineered solution to a problem that we can solve by changing our diets. If we simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often, then there would be no need for either harmful intensive animal agriculture or meat grown in a lab. The cultured meat industry rests on a view of human beings as greedy and incapable of change.”
Where to start? As Duncan Robinson points out, it is an ‘I would simply’ in the wild. It feels redundant to even point this out, but getting people to stop eating meat is anything but simple. It is not as if nobody has ever tried. People have written songs, published books, directed movies and even taken hostages to get people to watch said movies. Political parties have been set up. I could go on. As a movement, they have had some success. In the UK, over a million people no longer eat meat. Laws have been changed to eliminate the worst aspects of animal agriculture. But despite this, global demand for meat has tripled over the past 50 years and is still growing. As the world gets richer, more people are able to act on their preference for a meat-rich diet.
Kleeman thinks the cultured meat industry takes a pessimistic view of humanity - “greedy and incapable of change”. Hasn’t the pandemic shown “globally, we are able to make enormous changes to our behaviour when faced with existential crisis”?
In a word, no. While it is true people have made temporary sacrifices as part of the global effort against coronavirus, the changes are not sustainable. It is hard to imagine social distancing measures surviving far into next year. We have been reliant on the development of technical fixes to coronavirus, whether they be mass testing, vaccines, or treatments.
If your aim is to reduce animal suffering or stop climate change, then your primary concern should be backing the solution most likely to work. Is moral suasion a tractable solution? Recent experience suggests it isn’t. People are adopting vegetarian and vegan diets at a fast rate, but at current trends the end of animal farming is a long way off. And current high growth rates seem unlikely to continue.
There’s a risk that vegetarianism has picked the low hanging fruit. The marginal meat eater probably enjoys the taste of meat a lot more than the median vegetarian. Better meat substitutes, e.g. the Impossible Burger, are probably key to continued progress.
Moral progress is often tangled with technological progress. We are more likely to do the right thing when it’s easy. It is hard to imagine the practice of sending eight year olds up chimneys would have been abolished when it had, if not for inventions such as George Smart’s mechanical chimney sweep.
Kleeman’s view of human nature, i.e. malleable, altruistic, and open to persuasion, may seem attractive, but it doesn’t seem accurate.
Reading between the lines, Kleeman appears to think that some preferences can be intrinsically bad. It’s not enough to eliminate the associated harms of acting upon them, you need to get rid of them altogether. I think this is a strange view in general, but a particularly strange one to apply to meat eating. After all, it would presumably apply to oat milk and the Impossible Burger as well cultured meat.
Even if it were possible, at some sacrifice, to get the world to adopt a vegan diet (or at the very least, limit meat consumption to a meal a week) on ethical grounds alone, it is not clear why this is preferable to a world of no-kill cultured meat.
It should go without saying, but many people (myself included) really enjoy the taste of meat. If we can keep the enjoyment but get rid all the environmental and health issues, then that’s a major win. As Tom Chivers notes in a review of Kleeman’s book “lab-grown meat represents an optimistic view: that we can still have things we like (meat) at hugely reduced costs (of animal suffering and environmental damage).”
Lab-grown meat may even allow us to eventually improve on standard cuts. SuperMeat’s Tomar Leavy tells The Guardian that “we can have something that is between a breast and a thigh”. Some have suggested the tech could create meat from now extinct species - mammoth burger anyone?