Saving the world one vegan sausage at a time  

The main argument for veganism used to be its claimed moral aspect. We should not be causing harm to animals: for a convinced vegan this was an end in itself. In these days of global warming, however, there is much talk of the contribution which the reduction or elimination of the consumption of meat could make to our chances of survival. Making food more sustainable was a major focus of the Cop27 climate talks, recently concluded in Egypt. We are told that the global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity. The use of animals for meat causes twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods.

The use of farming machinery, spraying of fertilizer and transportation of products, causes 17.3bn metric tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, according to the research. This enormous release of gases that fuel the climate crisis is more than double the entire emissions of the US and represents 35% of all global emissions, according to Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois and co-author of a paper published in Nature Food. “This study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions.”

The raising and culling of animals for food is far worse for the climate than growing and processing fruits and vegetables for people to eat, the research found. This confirmed previous findings on the outsized impact that meat production, particularly beef, has on the environment.

So then no more Sunday Roast, although the Yorkshire puddings can remain on the plate.

But there is now another path to using animal products which involves, essentially, no animal suffering and no methane emissions from either end of the cow. It involves much reduced carbon emissions generally. We are talking here of lab-grown meat, recently declared safe to eat by the US Food and Drug Administration.

This allows a California company called Upside Foods to take stem cells from chickens and then grow them in a controlled laboratory environment with a soup of amino acids, vitamins and such-like to produce a meat product that doesn’t involve the slaughter of any animals. The production of meat from other animals, including seafood, is also in the pipeline. The company says that the chicken meat grown is identical to conventionally raised meat, although how consumers will respond to it is unclear.

With Singapore previously the only country in which lab-grown meat products could legally be sold to consumers, the US approval could open the floodgates to a new food market that backers say is more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional livestock farming. The new generation of plant-based meat substitutes such as ‘Impossible Burger’, have been lauded by many but have not not revolutionized the sector and have come in for criticism as unduly processed and therefore harmful to our health.

The lab-meat industry is though keen to position itself as an environmentally friendly and healthy alternative in an age of growing concern over the climate impact of meat production, as well as factory farming and animal welfare issues. There are now more than 150 cultivated meat companies around the world, backed by several billion dollars of investments, according to the Good Food Institute.

Undoubtedly, people decide to become vegan for a range of reasons. There are some who, physically, cannot tolerate meat, but that does not mean that they avoid all animal based products. Leather shoes may still be alright for them.

For most, however, it is a clear moral choice. Animal suffering for the benefit of mankind is simply unacceptable. So one might think that lab-grown meat should be good news for vegans. They could surely imagine future Christmas dinners of lab-grown turkey with cranberry sauce.

But what is the actual reaction of the Vegan Society? A spokesperson has said “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.” As things stand, that is probably correct – the trade-mark was no doubt registered on that basis, but it could be changed. Currently though, it seems that lab-grown meat as an animal product is the antithesis of Veganism.

The view seems to be that any relaxation of that definition would be a form of speciesism – an example of humans believing themselves to be the dominant species and so having the right to control the rest of the animal kingdom - for them, not a simple description of how life is, but a description of a moral dystopia. They say that we are inconsistent as we would not create lab-grown meat from human stem cells. We balk at cannibalism, but not at eating meat from other animals.

But with a self-defined morality, it is at least in principle much easier to recognise that a new approach may be needed when there are entirely new circumstances. All it requires is our old friend critical thinking.

It may be naïve to imagine that vegans would immediately embrace cultured meat. But as I understand it, veganism is a broad church, with various interpretations of its rationale and how far people are willing to go in order to avoid animal products.

As one of its own adherents has said: “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 for reasons of cruelty and those who believe in a more radical restructuring of our relationship with the animal world. Indeed, arguments against cultured meat could hamper the progress of animal liberation.”

Cultivating meat involves taking stem cells from an animal to grow inside bioreactors. The biopsies are invasive but the process is far 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.

Now although veganism has made progress, it is very far away from overturning the entire meat production industry. It would however be paradoxical for Vegans and others in favour of preventing the exploitation of animals to oppose what is one of their best chances of success in bringing it virtually to an end. In his writings, Voltaire tells us “A wise Italian says that the best is the enemy of the good”. This would be an obvious example. it is surely their moral duty to accept lab-grown meat into the vegan menu.

I am not entirely sure that vegans have considered the practical effects of achieving their goal. After all, the result of abolishing the livestock industry, for whatever reason, would probably be a massive reduction in the animal populations we currently have. Should we simply release the cows, sheep, chickens and pigs into the wild and let them fend for themselves? Should we instead pay farmers to let them loose in the fields they currently use? Do we, unlike for the rest of the animals in the wild, have an obligation to pay vets to look after their health?

Which all goes to illustrate that although an integral part of the landscape, farming is hardly ‘natural’.

And this then takes us on to another argument often deployed against lab-grown meat – that it is “unnatural” and so the technology should be rejected. No doubt hunter-gatherers engaged in similar debates with those who would enclose their land in order to engage in the newfangled, more localised way of life.

But what is true is that change is a necessary part of life for us – particularly when we have to feed 8 billion people now, and 10 billion people in the next decades. We shall need a scientific revolution in our food system. If we were to live in a natural way, we would still 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.

Pual Buckingham

14 March 2023


Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy