Artificial meat and the problems of ‘-isms’

I often say that I am not a fan of ‘-isms’. Not even those supporting the causes I care for, such as transhumanism. I sympathise with some ‘-isms’ (again, such as transhumanism), but I never consider myself a ‘something-ist’. The reason is that, generally, ‘-isms’ have two problems. The first problem is that they almost always support at least some ideas, or make certain claims, which I disagree with or find too fanciful (certain acceptations of ‘mind uploading’ come to mind, but that’s a story for another post). The second problem is that, if you say you’re a something-ist, people will almost surely assume that you endorse, or believe in, some ideas that are really not your thing, merely because such ideas are either an integral part of the relevant something-ism, or are what people think something-ism is about (which may or may not be true). Not to mention the fact that people often regard the dictionary as the ultimate authority on what ‘real’ something-ism is about, cheerfully ignoring all its variants and flavours (which often blur into mainstream something-ism and each other), whose proponents are usually well persuaded that their own something-ism is the real thing—others just got it wrong.

There’s actually a third problem too. Namely, that if they’re not careful, something-ists who are a bit too zealous might end up putting their ideology before the reasons they embraced it in the first place. Sometimes, this can undermine the very objective something-ists intended to achieve with their embracing the ideology and spreading it left and right.

I had a brilliant example of this phenomenon one time when, while having lunch at a vegetarian restaurant (or vegan, I’m not sure), I mentioned lab-grown meat to my friend. My friend is a vegetarian (or vegan, I’m again not sure), whereas I am not. Vegetarianism and veganism are, obviously, two ‘-isms’; as a corollary of the above, I’m neither a vegetarian, nor a vegan. (Although again according to the above, perhaps I should say ‘vegetarianist’…) I’m not just quibbling about definitions: I do indeed eat animal products of pretty much all kinds. This, however, doesn’t prevent me from sympathising with the cause of vegetarians and vegans who are such because they’re against animal cruelty. Quite frankly, even if animals are raised in the best possible way, and are then killed in the nicest possible way (whatever that means), eating them is still at odds with my own moral compass. Even though I do eat them. The main reason I eat them despite my inner conflict is that I am one of those lucky bastards who wouldn’t put on an ounce even if they ate a mammoth; the downside of this is, I tend to lose weight very easily, and if I were to banish animal proteins from my diet entirely, I fear I could become even more translucent than I already am. A second reason is that I am not persuaded that a vegetarian/vegan diet is necessarily the healthiest option for everyone (and no offence, but I’m not interested in debating this, as it is beyond the point of this post); the last reason, and it is actually a scarcely important one, is taste. I say it is scarcely important because I tried vegan food more than once and I found it delicious. If taste was the only reason, I’d probably be vegetarian/vegan. Minor side note, I’m a huge fan of veggies, and together with fruits, seeds and nuts, they make up at least 80% of my diet.

By the way, are you starting to understand why this blog is called looking4troubles already?

But do not let me digress. Let’s go back to the veggie lunch with my friend, and why it is an example of the third problem of ‘-isms’. Lab-grown meat, I explained, would be a great lateral-thinking solution to the problem of animal cruelty (and a bunch of others, such as unsustainable farming and how to feed a growing world population). It doesn’t involve raising any animals, let alone killing them. All it takes is cultured cells, a lab, and hard science. We are not yet at the point where lab-grown meat could be produced in industrial quantities and be more economically convenient than traditional meat, but we’re pretty damn close. Not only the cost of a lab-grown burger plummeted from hundreds of thousands of dollars to around 11 dollars in about four years, but there already are companies and startups (such as SuperMeat and Memphis Meats) that have already created chicken and duck meat as well. While some people will surely freak out at the thought of consuming ‘unnatural’ meat and will likely think that it must somehow be bad for you, the truth is that artificial meat could be even better than the real thing: Since we would engineer it, we could make it more nutritious and less unhealthy (for example, we could make it have fewer saturated fats, of which you can get too many if you eat a lot of certain types of meat). Nutritional value aside, producing lab-grown meat would require far less land (mostly that where the laboratory is located), cause significantly fewer CO2 emissions (cow cells just don’t fart as much as cows do), and could probably be much more simply and cheaply automatised than traditional farms—in other words, it could be cheaper to produce meat in a lab than in a farm, which means ‘lab-burgers’ would be cheaper than hamburgers, thus giving people an incentive to prefer artificial meat over the traditional one. Of course meat isn’t the only reason we raise and kill animals; there are other animal-derived products—as well as products coming from other animals than cows, chickens, and ducks—we use or consume as well, and as long as we will do so, animal suffering and the rest of the usual suspects will still be a problem to at least some extent. However, we need to keep in mind that meat consumption is the primary reason for raising livestock; remove that reason and you’ll eliminate a big chunk of the problem. Additionally, no one says that cultured beef and poultry are the best we can do: dairy, seafood, egg whites, (thought these aren’t exactly like the real thing) and leather are possible as well. Admittedly, we’re far from molecular assemblers or the fabled Star Trek‘s replicators (though 3D printers could be considered their great-great-grandfathers, and yes, they can be used to make food) that could make nearly everything, food included, without having to plant a seed or touch an animal, but you know, we’re off to a good start anyway.

These reasons alone would probably be enough to convince many consumers to make the transition; the fact artificial meat and foods would take animal cruelty out of the equation could easily make them the new ‘organic’ and plant the final nail in the coffin of old-school farming. After tens of thousands of years, it would be about time.

This sounds great. So, what’s the problem, and what does this have to do with the lunch with my friend? My friend’s reaction to artificial meat was: ‘I need to think of a reason to oppose it.’ My understanding was that the matter was one of principle: Eating meat is wrong, in any form, and people should not do it. Period.

Even if my understanding was incorrect in the specific case, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people actually espoused this principle, and that is the third problem of ‘-isms’: Sometimes, ideologies come before objectives.

If people didn’t eat meat in the first place, then we probably wouldn’t have an animal cruelty problem, because we probably would just leave cows & co. alone, and we wouldn’t need artificial meat either. However, a lot of people do eat meat, and some (possibly quite many) of these people may never buy into vegetarianism or veganism for a number of reasons ranging from taste to laziness to ideology. Anyone who thinks eating meat is wrong because it causes animals a great deal of suffering (not to mention death) needs to decide what is most important to them—convincing everyone to embrace their same moral principles, or putting an end to said animal suffering. I would say the latter is far more important, for whether or not everyone agrees that eating meat is wrong doesn’t really matter so long as no animal is harmed or killed in order to get the meat. Animals certainly wouldn’t give a flying monkey’s arse whether you ate meat or not if the meat wasn’t their own, strictly speaking.

So, if one’s goal is to persuade everyone else that eating meat is Wrong™—by all means, let them go ahead and wage total war on any kind of meat consumption, traditional or artificial. On the other hand, if the goal is to achieve the (desirable) vegan utopia where no human ever harms an animal, one should consider that the war on the dietary habits of other people is unlikely to be won, at all or before a rather long time (during which animals would keep suffering and dying in slaughterhouses). There are a number of reasons why chances of turning everyone into a vegan are low—for example, for as long as our species has existed, we haven’t managed to convince everyone not to kill other humans for ultimately futile reasons; I fail to see what could possibly persuade everyone not to kill any animal, ever, for food—but artificial meat stands a respectable chance of sidestepping the problem altogether and let us have the cake and eat it too, and within a reasonable timeframe of a couple of decades, give or take. (Some think they might serve the first lab-burgers five years from now already.) After all, the best way to resolve a conflict is to make all parties involved equally happy.

I don’t know how many vegetarians/vegans are aware of the opportunities offered by the advent of artificial meat (and, more generally, artificial food), nor how many endorse or oppose the idea. Hopefully, those who oppose it are very few. As said, I’m neither vegetarian nor vegan, yet I look forward to the day when science and technology will have solved this problem too and ended the age of slaughterhouses; if I was vegetarian/vegan, I’d be shouting about artificial meat from the rooftops all the time—pretty much in the same way I do with rejuvenation biotechnologies—because, a) it’s likely only way to actually ever close the slaughterhouses for good, and b) the more people people support the cause, financially or otherwise, the sooner it will happen.