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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Yes, Lab-Grown Meat Is Vegan

I wish I came to veganism through an epiphany about the right to personhood of animals, or recognition of the environmental harm that animal farming causes. But I didn’t. What turned me vegan was a night of vomiting brought on by undercooked ostrich. It was Glastonbury Festival, 2019. Being 21, hungover, and hungry, I thought I’d get a snack from the only vendor at the festival without a queue. Later, while crouched in a portaloo batting away hallucinations of ostrich slaughter, I vowed never to eat meat again.

Today, I eat the same diet as many vegans. My diet is defined by wanting to avoid animal suffering and damage to the environment but, unlike some vegans, I don’t dislike meat. I know that if I tasted salmon again my tastebuds would explode with pleasure, but I abstain because I don’t think my right to life trumps that of another animal. Believe me, I want to eat meat again. But I won’t.

That is, I won’t eat meat from an animal who has been alive. When I discovered that lab-grown meat had been declared safe to eat by the US Food and Drug Administration, I was overjoyed. Meat, grown like a plant, with no suffering involved … Immediately I was imagining future Christmas dinners: lab-grown turkey with cranberry sauce on the side. 

But when I announced my excitement to my vegan friends, they recoiled. Everyone felt grossed out. Ella Marshall, deputy trademark manager of the Vegan Society, the world’s oldest vegan association, told me in an email that “we cannot officially support cultivated meat as animals are still used in its production […] we would not be able to register such products with the Vegan Trademark.”

I had been naive in thinking that vegans would embrace cultured meat. Veganism is a broad church, filled with various interpretations. Accordingly, as lab-grown meat becomes available as a cheap, sustainable form of protein that does not require animal suffering, veganism will face an identity crisis. Conflict will arise between vegans whose philosophy is defined by the simple avoidance of animal products and those who believe in a more radical restructuring of our relationship with the animal world. 

Ultimately, arguments against cultured meat could hamper the progress of animal liberation. Vegans should not permit this. If we want to see an end to animal exploitation, it is our moral duty to call lab-grown meat vegan, even if it unnerves us.   

If you read science fiction, the idea of lab-grown meat might not seem so strange. Writers from Philip K. Dick to Douglas Adams have explored the technology. But how, in real life, does it work? 

To cultivate meat involves taking stem cells from an animal to grow inside bioreactors. Though these biopsies are invasive, the process is less painful than many of the procedures an animal might endure during its lifetime on a farm, and, importantly, the process does not involve the animal being killed. In the bioreactors, the cells are fooled into believing they are still inside an animal’s body, as they are kept in a substrate made up of nutrients like amino acids, vitamins, carbohydrates, and proteins. Once the meat is grown, the product is harvested and processed into whatever form the manufacturers wish to sell. Since the first $375,000 burger was eaten in 2013, manufacturing costs have gone down. Though still expensive compared to conventionally farmed meat, the drop in cost is radical, and set to continue. Eventually lab-grown meat could become more affordable than traditionally farmed animals.

For vegans, there should be a lot to love about this new technology. Its potential to reduce everything from animal suffering to greenhouse gas emissions make the technology, if not revolutionary, at least a useful tool in the fight against climate change. 

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Yet some vegans are hesitant to consider lab-grown meat vegan, believing that it violates the traditional definition of veganism (per the Vegan Society) as a philosophy that “seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals” and “by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.”

For many, the permissibility of lab-grown meat hinges on whether you think the harvesting of stem cells from an animal qualifies as exploitation. The question could be posed like this: Should we assert the rights of a single cow not to have its stem cells harvested above the rights of all the animals who could be emancipated—that is, not slaughtered—by the burgers grown from that cell?

From a puritanical, pedantic standpoint, it’s clear why hardline vegans would be opposed to lab-grown meat: They’ve avoided everything from lattes to leather all their lives, why should they make an exception for a single stem cell? This deontological moral position, which distinguishes right from wrong according to universal moral rules, colors many vegan-lead arguments against lab-grown meat. Gary L. Francione, philosopher at Rutgers University and author of the 2020 work Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, said of lab-grown meat that “if an animal was used, it is not vegan.” Period. Furthermore, he believes “lab-grown meat is a gimmick that is meant to make people feel good about eating animals and it will only augment and not replace conventional meat anyway. What I think we should be doing instead is promoting veganism.” 

Plus, animal abolitionists, who sit at the radical end of veganism, argue against lab-grown meat on the basis that it is speciesist. Speciesism states that humans place themselves above other animals as more important, and that this bias leads to all forms of animal exploitation, from burger consumption to greyhound racing. Vegans who worry about speciesism contest that the eating of meat grown from animal cells—even if no animals are slaughtered—still upholds a belief that animals are “something to eat” in a way that humans are not. After all, there are no movements to cultivate ethical human burgers, for example, because we view humans in a privileged position compared to animals.

Animal abolitionists are uncomfortable with designating lab-grown meat vegan because it reinforces inequality between the species and fails to address broader societal issues regarding the relationship between humanity and nature. For example, if lab-grown meat is widespread in the future, we will stop cutting down trees not because we see the animals living in them as their own persons with rights, but because the land will no longer be needed for farming. In short, lab-grown meat might resolve some vegan issues, but it could sanction others by failing to condone carnist inclinations outright.

The fact is we live in a world that loves meat. McDonald’s sells 2.4 million Big Macs a day. To hope that humans will have an epiphany and realize the equality of animals is farfetched. Considering the vegan population of America is only 6 percent, and that we need to limit global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees before the middle of the century, we simply don’t have the time to argue for the rights of individual animals.

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This is why, in the instance of lab-grown meat, I am a utilitarian. This means I consider the potential of the technology to reduce suffering a good thing, even if it reinforces carnist ideas about diet. For me, it’s undeniable that when the rights of a few animals (not to be exploited) are held above the rights of millions of animals (not to be slaughtered), we have reached a philosophical dead end. A utilitarian position brings us closer to veganism’s end goal of freeing animals from exploitation through saving millions of lives and restructuring humanity’s relationship with the animal kingdom. Animal abolitionism is an admirable idea, probably the most pure form of freedom from exploitation, and one that I would endorse if it weren’t for practicability. And while utilitarian positions might not be able to address some of the creepier problems presented by lab-grown meat (such as the sale of lab-grown tiger steaks), it directly addresses the biggest problem of all: the mass slaughter of animals in factory farms. 

I am not saying vegans need to eat lab-grown meat, but they should be careful of dissuading die-hard carnivores from eating it. Overall, this technological revolution is aimed at meat eaters. My biggest fear regarding the rejection of lab-grown meat by vegans is the risk of affecting the attitude of meat-eaters to the new technology. I can envision a future in which a movement like that of anti-vaxxers prevents lab-grown meat from fulfilling its potential. Though it is tempting to argue over the vegan status of a product on technical grounds, vegans must ask themselves: Will what I say harm veganism’s end goal?

Already, arguments that lab-grown meat is “unnatural” taint the discourse on the technology. But as Ed Winters, the vegan influencer and author, explained, “The only way that we can feed 8 billion people now, and 10 billion people in the next decades, is through a scientific revolution of our food system. If we were to live in a natural way, we would be hunting and gathering. We actually need our food systems to be the opposite of natural if we are to have any chance of actually feeding everyone.”

Modern life is unnatural: We can’t restore the true natural order, but we can advocate for an existence that limits the harm we inflict on the natural world. Winters advocates for lab-grown meat as the quickest route to ending animal suffering, and thinks other vegans should get on board to speed things up. Indeed, designating lab-grown meat vegan seems a vegan decision, one that prioritizes the wider implications of lab-grown meat on the natural world above how comfortable it makes you personally feel.

Vegans also need to take control of the discussion surrounding lab-grown meat production if we are to ensure the technology progresses in a manner that is environmentally friendly. It is tempting to believe that lab-grown meat is pioneered by vegans, but the opposite is true. Cargill, one of America’s most powerful animal agricultural firms, is at the forefront of lab-grown meat investment. This is not done due to a desire to transition away from factory farming, but in recognition of an increasing population and an inflating market for protein. This is a problem for everybody who cares about animal suffering and climate change.

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Still, lab-grown meat does not necessarily have a lower carbon footprint than animal agriculture, due to the large amount of energy involved in its production. To lower global agriculture’s overall carbon output, we need to ensure that the land freed in the emancipation of farm animals is used for renewable energy. Vegans need to help ensure lab-grown meat products are sold as purely lab-grown, not used to pad out existing meat products to reduce manufacturing costs. And if vegans apply pressure to manufacturers of lab-grown meat, we can encourage an end even to the harvesting of cells from live cattle through the creation of cell lines from which future meat cells can be sourced.

An ethical revolution in global agriculture is possible. But its full potential can only be realized with the use of “unnatural” technologies controlled by moral people, not businessmen. For vegans to turn their backs on lab-grown meat over the technicality of its being derived from an animal’s cells is silly. To argue that people simply go vegan to fight climate change and end animal exploitation is to deal with those issues in a parallel universe where the obstacles of context, economic viability, and personal preference vanish. We need to deal with the world as it is now: in peril. Permitting vegans and meat-eaters a get-out through contributing—however slightly—to the argument against lab-grown meat is to permit the continuation of animal exploitation and environmental destruction. And that isn’t very vegan, is it?

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