Throughout history, people have eaten meat as a large component of their diet. Vegans, on the other hand, eat plants. This is no revelation. The reasons for this difference are typically based in ethics, with vegans not wishing to fund the suffering and slaughter of conscious beings such as livestock.
Environmental factors also rank highly on the reasons for most vegans snuffing animal products from their diets. Conventional animal agriculture accounts for 33% of global water consumption, 38% of land use, approximately 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. I could continue to spit out concerning statistics for a worryingly long time. Such goals seem noble; attempting to save animals and save the planet for the simple price of cutting out animal products from one’s own diet. And yet, many people, despite agreeing with these goals and even acknowledging the facts, refuse to make any sort of change. Why is this?
The most common excuse is simple; I like to eat meat. Whilst personal preference is a weak argument in the face of such huge stakes, it is something that needs to be addressed nevertheless. A selfish reason is still a reason and if it is the one thing stopping someone from making a beneficial change, it is a reason that one must overcome. This has no doubt become much easier over the last five years or so. As veganism has grown, so has the vegan market. Meat alternatives made from soy, seitan, or mycoprotein have come into their element in a huge way and the market has exploded. Restaurants worldwide have vegan options to supply the growing demographic with the food they want.
But this still doesn’t change one thing. The fact that some people simply don’t enjoy the alternative. People who simply like eating meat. Those who disavow the taste of vegan alternatives with every fibre of their being and say they would rather starve than touch a faux meat product. In the past, no option is really available for such a person other than to carry on doing what they are doing. No reasonable argument, emotional plea, or environmental stakes will change their behaviour, even if they agreed with them in their totality. That could all be changing very soon.
In the March of 1932, Winston Churchill, the soon-to-be British Prime Minister, wrote an article in Popular Mechanics called ’50 Years Hence’. As one might be able to extract from the title, he writes of the expected social changes and progressions one might expect to witness in the forthcoming fifty years. One of his predictions was that within that time frame, our mastery over biotechnology would develop to a point where, as Churchill himself puts it, ‘We shall 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’. What Churchill had effectively predicted was lab-grown meat.
Whilst he was off by a small margin of time, his prediction proved to be accurate. In 2000, the first edible lab-grown meat was created; goldfish cells were used to create a fillet. A landmark piece of biotechnological ingenuity for sure. Why has such technology not yet been placed in stores worldwide?
The biggest issue is the price of production. Memphis Meats, a company founded in 2015 by three scientists and funded by some of the biggest philanthropists in the business, has been struggling with this issue for years. In 2016, they released a video of a cultured meatball and in 2017 they had their first lab-grown chicken and duck meals on public display as well. The problem was that cultured beef was costing the company $40,000 per kilogram produced and poultry was costing $20,000 per kilogram. Perhaps a touch too expensive for a meal.
This price problem seems to be one which will soon be overcome. By 2017, the cost of production had already dropped to just $5,000 per kilogram. Still far too much for commercial use of course, but a significant step in the right direction. The company has set themselves the goal of reducing the products cost to $5 per kilogram, allowing the in-vitro meat to compete directly with both traditional meat products and vegan alternatives, but what are the pros and cons?
It should be noted that health is probably the weakest argument for a plant-based diet, given that it is possible to eat animal products and still be at minimal risk of chronic disease or other ill effects provided these products are limited. However, given the choice between traditional meat and in-vitro meat, the latter has a number of benefits. Due to the lack of farmed animals in the process of in-vitro meats, there is a largely reduced risk of zoonotic diseases (diseases which spread from animals to humans) being present which are especially rife in factory farming. Lab-grown meat offers greater control of its nutritional composition than we could ever have with traditional meat. Want meat with no saturated fat? You’ve got it. Want meat with no cholesterol? Done. Want to add beneficial omega-3 fats into the meat? Easy. Such benefits can only be had with in-vitro meat. Such changes could massively reduce risk of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and some forms of cancer. 1–0 to lab-grown meat.
Regarding the environment impact, once again in-vitro meat takes the win. Much of the environmental damage from the animal agriculture is due to the needs of the livestock. It takes a lot of land to grow the food needed to keep cattle growing, therefore huge amounts of deforestation to grow the food. Livestock produce a vast amounts of methane gas during digestion, therefore a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. Cows drink a lot of water per day, therefore enormous volumes of clean drinking water are needed. A 2011 paper, in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, predicted that a complete transition from conventional to cultured meat production would result in a 78–98% reduction in greenhouse gas emission, 99% reduction in land use, 45% reduction in energy use, and 82–96% reduction in water usage. Certainly not statistics to scoff at. 2–0 to lab-grown meat.
The ethical argument feels as though it hardly needs to be said. Each and every year, more than 60 billion sentient beings are raised in order to be slaughtered for their meat, many of them in horrific conditions. This is a moral catastrophe of the highest calibre and one of the greatest, if not the absolute greatest, concentrations of human-caused suffering in the world’s history. This is perhaps the most significant advantage of cultured meat; it does not rely on slaughtered animals at any point of production. Each parent cell extracted from an animal can multiple a huge number of times, and each donor animal can have billions of cells extracted. This process places the number of animals required to be many orders of magnitude below the needs of conventional farming. Considering the potential for a genetically altered cell line to become, for all intents and purposes, physically immortal, it could be that only a single tissue sample from a select animal is needed to supply a possibly endless demand.
But what about the means of attaining the initial tissue sample? What are the ethical implications of the procedure? Cells can be collected by using a biopsy needle to extract stem cells from the target animal. This procedure is a harmless one, taking only a few minutes to perform, able to be done under local or full anaesthetic, and poses virtually no risk of long-term issues to the animal. Altogether, suffering which could be described as completely insignificant compared to that which livestock held within the traditional meat industry are forced to endure. 3–0 to lab-grown meat.
Is lab-grown meat vegan? It depends on your definition. If you’re definition of vegan is one that completely excludes all animal products from your life, then it is likely a no. However, if you believe more so in the reasonable definition proposed by the Vegan Society, then it could very well be. The society states;
‘Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’
Lab-grown meat, if produced with ethics in mind, does not seem to involve any form of cruelty to animals, especially when compared to conventional meat and once we get to the stage where we could have a single immortal cell line, taking donor animals out of the picture altogether, there is no real way of arguing for any form exploitation either. Even if you, as somebody who may already be vegan and feeling perfectly fine with tofu and faux meat, think of the potential for in-vitro meat to be a way for people to continue eating their favourite foods without the huge ethical and environmental dilemma present in every bite. A new type of meat; one which tastes the same, costs the same, is healthier, is better for the environment, and above all else, is far more ethical. Why not?
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This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with the authors permission.