From Shiva to Dyson: a paradigm shift from radical ecology with soil-based low-tech food to rational ecology with air-based high-tech food

In the past decade, I made a paradigm shift in thinking about ecology and sustainable food production. I shifted from radical ecology to rational ecology. These two paradigms are represented by two women of color: Vandana Shiva and Lisa Dyson. When it comes to food production, this paradigm shift is a move upward: from Shiva’s low-tech, soil-based food to Dyson’s high-tech, air-based food.

Vandana Shiva and Lisa Dyson have three things in common. First, they are both women of color (not like me: I’m a white man). Second, they have a PhD in theoretical physics (just like me). Third, they are environmental activists focusing on sustainable food and agriculture (pretty much like me).

I considered Vandana Shiva as one of my environmental heroines, as I was fond of her ecofeminism. However, in later years, after changing my mind about GMOs, I became much more critical towards her views. I think Vandana Shiva has harmful beliefs.

Vandana Shiva is against GMOs, including golden rice and Bt-eggplant. However, these GMO crops are very beneficial in terms of improving health, economic welfare and sustainability. According to one estimate, the absence of Golden Rice in India causes a loss of more than 100.000 healthy life years every year. The use of Bt-eggplant in Bangladesh resulted in an almost 40% reduction in pesticide use, a more than 40% increase in yields and a $400 increase in yearly farmer profits per hectare. The health benefits due to the decreased pesticide use save a few million dollars per year.

Furthermore, Vandana Shiva made misleading claims about terminator genes and untrue statements about GMOs causing increased Indian farmer suicides. There is no evidence that GMOs are the cause of farmer suicides. The number of suicides has even decreased slightly after the introduction of Bt-cotton GMOs in India. There are indications that GMOs in India contribute to rural development and poverty reduction (also among the poorest farmers and women).

As a result of her GMO-opposition, which goes against the scientific consensus of GMO-safety, Shiva was against international food donations to Zambia (2001) and Orissa-India (1999) during mass-famine events. The opposition to such food aid can be considered as believing that unfounded GMO-risks are worse than people dying from starvation. Shiva’s pseudoscientific beliefs about GMOs can be very harmful.

Finally, Shiva’s ecofeminist views reflect a kind of essentialist thinking that I disagree with. For example, she states that current scientific-technological knowledge is too patriarchal or masculine. But science and technology are based on the laws of nature, and these laws are gender neutral. There is no such thing as male science. Being against science and technology because they are discovered and invented by men, is sexist.  

Considering the above, Vandana Shiva fell from grace. Interestingly, someone else became my new woman of color theoretical physicist environmental activist heroine: Lisa Dyson. When doing research on how to minimize harm, I learned about the importance of land-free food. Shiva’s solution to our food production problems, consists in buying local organic food. But the health and environmental sustainability of local organic food is very much in dispute. Most importantly, organic food is soil-based, requiring a lot of land. Taking the welfare and harms of wild animals also into consideration, land occupation generates many problems.

Lisa Dyson, on the other hand, is doing research on gas-based or air-based food production. Hydrogenotrophic bacteria can be genetically modified to produce all kinds of protein, oils, carbohydrates and other essential nutrients, made from air by using gases such as hydrogen and CO2 as inputs. Hence, this potential technology is carbon negative (having net negative greenhouse gas emissions) and requires almost no land, water, pesticides and soil fertilizers. It can even be applied in space stations. This space-age technology offers clear environmental benefits. Dyson founded the company Air Protein to develop air-based meat.

Shiva prefers local, low-tech food production, which includes soil-based organic food and permaculture, whereas Dyson looks for extremely resilient high-tech food production, which includes air-based and fermentation-enabled food. That food production is extremely resilient, because it can even help feeding the world population in situations of extreme climate catastrophes. That will not be feasible with Shiva’s soil-based, small-scale, organic, agro-ecological permaculture. The fact that Dyson is a woman also offers a nice counterexample to Shiva’s belief that high-tech science solutions are too masculine.

Shiva’s and Dyson’s different attitudes towards food production technologies reflect two different paradigms. Shiva is a representative of the radical ecology paradigm that includes my earlier position as an environmental activist: deep ecology, ecofeminism, low-tech, low consumption. Coincidentally, the word ‘radical’ comes from the Latin word ‘radix’, which means ‘root’. As roots are low and growing in the soil, Shiva’s low-tech soil-based food represents radical ecology. But after learning about effective altruism and rational (scientific) skepticism with its focus on rationality and critical thinking, I turned towards a new paradigm, of which Dyson is a representative. I could call this paradigm rational ecology, to contrast it with radical ecology. This rational ecology paradigm highlights the importance of high-tech solutions such as air-based food, and is common in circles of effective environmentalism and ecomodernism.

Lowering consumption (especially of luxury products), which is part of the radical ecology paradigm, remains important, but it is not sufficient. Improving production, which is part of the ecomodernist paradigm, is necessary as well. Using our limited resources, time and money to do scientific research to improve production is likely to be more effective than using those resources to convince people to lower their consumption. That is why the environmental movement has to shift upwards, from Shiva’s low-tech radical ecology paradigm with soil-based food, to Dyson’s high-tech rational ecology paradigm with air-based food.

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Towards zero harm and more sustainability: animal-free and land-free food

If we take into consideration animal suffering – not only of livestock animals but also wild animals and invertebrates – agriculture is likely humanity’s most harmful activity. Looking at animal agriculture: 70 billion farm animals are slaughtered every year, plus a few trillion aquatic animals (e.g. for fishmeal to be used in the livestock industry). The land occupation by livestock and animal feed crops prevents the reforestation of millions of square kilometers of land. Those potential forests could absorb more than half of all CO2 emitted from the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. This means livestock farming is not only a leading contributor of greenhouse gases but also the leading obstacle to one of the most effective climate change mitigation measures, namely reforestation.

As animal farming is very harmful to animals and future generations, development of animal-free food such as plant-based meat and cell-based meat are of prime importance. The Good Food Institute promotes animal-free meat, dairy and eggs, i.e. meat without the pig, dairy without the cow and eggs without the chicken. Using real living animals in our food production system is very inefficient and harmful in many ways (as summarized in this infographic).

The Good Food Institute not only focuses on plant-based and cell-based alternatives to animal products. They also support research and development of fermentation-enabled food. Micro-organisms such as yeast, bacteria, algae and fungi can be used to produce all kinds of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients. Precision fermentation is expected to be an upcoming industry-disrupting food technology.

Why land-free is also important

Fermentation-enabled food not only allows us to go animal-free, but also land-free. Our use of agricultural land is very harmful. When food production requires a lot of land, those crops are usually grown outdoors, where they are vulnerable to pests. The massive use of insecticides harms invertebrate wild animals. As insects could probably be sentient, insecticides could cause a lot of suffering. Also tillage and harvesting can kill wild animals. Next we have pollution, eutrophication and acidification, from nutrient runoff, soil-erosion, herbicides and fungicides. And of course greenhouse gas emissions from the heavy machinery. Outdoor food production also means higher vulnerability to extreme weather events, which means more crop losses and lower yields, which means even higher land use demands.

Land-free food production techniques also allow us to survive very extreme climate events, such as a supervolcano eruption, a global nuclear war or an asteroid impact that release so much dust in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight for several years and making land-based agriculture impossible. Hence, land-free food becomes important in terms of human survival, decreasing the risk of human extinction.

Why high-tech is better than low-tech

To decrease the harm caused by agriculture, the environmental movement focuses on low-tech, land-based agricultural methods such as organic farming, agro-ecology and permaculture. However, as they are land-based, these food production methods still cause a lot of harm. Much better alternatives are indoor farming such as vertical agriculture, supported by the Association for Vertical Farming. Not only is organic farming sometimes more harmful than conventional land-based farming, but organic farmers often have a negative attitude towards e.g. land-free hydroponic food production systems, where crops are grown in mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. In Europe, hydroponically grown crops cannot be labeled organic. Those organic farmers believe that farming should be embedded in ecosystems, with plants grown in soil. Of course, those outdoor conditions mean that crops can be affected by insects, and the organic methods to control insect pests, such as organic insecticides and natural predators, remain harmful to the insects. More humane (insect friendly) insecticides are not necessarily organic. Hydroponic systems are much better protected against insects, and have much higher yields due to the improved growing conditions. Hence, the belief that crops should be grown outdoors, in soil, within ecosystems, is harmful (an example of a harmful naturalistic preference).

It becomes clear that the organic, traditional or low-tech proposals to transform our agricultural system are ineffective and even harmful. This time, high-tech provides much better solutions. Most promising indoor farming methods, such as hydroponics and aeroponics (plants grown in water or fog) are high-tech, being research by e.g. NASA to eventually be used in space travel. Of course food production in a space ship cannot be land-based and has to be very efficient in terms of nutrient recycling and resource use.

However, most of those indoor farming techniques are suitable for growing only fruits and vegetables, not (yet) for producing large amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates that can replace soy, oil palm, wheat, corn, rice and other major crops.

Why gas-based food is promising

Biomass fermentation agriculture offers new possibilities, where microbes become little protein factories. Especially gas-based production techniques (gas fermentation) are promising high-tech land-free food production techniques to produce large amounts of biomass (protein, fats and carbohydrates). Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are used by several companies to grow bacteria that produce protein. Three forerunners are Air Protein (US), Solar Foods (Finland) and the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide Institute (Japan). Also bacteria growing on methane can produce protein (e.g. Unibio in  Denmark). These start-up companies used high-tech research from space-travel scientists.

Why support for the Good Food Institute is so important

Gas-based protein from gas fermentation is an example of fermentation-enabled food. These new, high-level fermentation technologies are much more promising solutions than the low-tech organic, agro-ecological and permaculture farming methods that still depend on land and soil and often use animals. Only with animal-free and land-free food can we eliminate harm to farm animals and wild animals. And it increases the probability of human survival through extreme climate events.

Animal-free food, such as plant-based and cell-based meats, can eliminate farm animal suffering, whereas land-free food can strongly decrease wild animal suffering. The Good Food Institute not only supports animal-free food, but also promotes some fermentation-enabled, land-free production technologies. That makes support for the Good Food Institute even more effective in terms of decreasing harm. Low-tech land-based agriculture promoted by environmentalists is not so effective to reduce harm and promote sustainability.

One of my many mistakes in the past is that I supported low-tech agriculture such as permaculture, agro-ecology and organic farming. But now I think we need to evolve towards animal-free and land-free food production, especially gas-based food from precision fermentation, to decrease harm to farm animals and wild animals, and to increase the probability of human survival. This is probably the unique solution that has the most benefits: all the benefits of veganism, plus improving wild animal welfare plus decreasing catastrophic/existential risks.

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Our three most harmful activities and how to minimize them

Does your existence contribute positively or negatively to the world? Of course, you can help other people and make people happier in all kinds of ways. But if during your life, you cause more harm than benefits, then your net contribution is negative. To understand our impact in the world, we have to look at our most harmful activities. But first, we have to make a distinction between three kinds of harm: abusive, accidental and aversive harm.

Three kinds of harm

Abusive harm consists of using a victim in ways that that individual does not want. Using someone means that the presence of the individual is required to achieve someone else’s ends. Abusing someone means not only that the presence is required, but also that the victim has to do or undergo unwanted things (does not want that use). Abusive harm is always an intentional harm. From the three kinds of harm, abusive harm is probably the most immoral, because it is considered extremely bad in deontological rights-based ethics. Abusive harm is a violation of the right not to be used as merely a means to someone else’s ends, or the right to bodily autonomy (the idea that your body belongs to you and no-one else may use your body against your will).

Sexual abuse or buying products made from slavery are examples of abusive harm. But I think there is one activity in particular that causes the most abusive harm and is performed by most people: the consumption of animal products. Each year roughly one trillion vertebrate animals (mostly broiler chicken and fish) are killed and used for human consumption. The living conditions of most farm animals are horrible: they probably have a net negative welfare.

Accidental harm is unintended harm caused to a victim. As the harm is not intentional, the victim was not used. Accidental harm is often considered less immoral than abusive harm. For example, a driver who accidentally kills a child in a traffic accident caused a much less serious crime than a cannibal who intentionally kills and eats a child (even if the child of the traffic accident suffered more, had better future life prospects or has more friends and family who are in grief, than the child who is eaten by the cannibal).

Causing an accident and polluting the environment are examples of accidental harm (pollution causes harm to e.g. wild animals and future generations). Although accidental harm is less immoral than abusive harm, and the abusive harm of animal agriculture is extremely big, some human activities cause a lot of accidental harm as well. It is not clear what human activity causes the most accidental harm, but probably the burning of fossil fuels that causes climate change will be somewhere at the top, as is accidentally killing a lot of animals (insects, small vertebrates) in agriculture (e.g. during harvest or plowing).

Aversive harm is intentional harm when the perpetrator dislikes the victim. The aversion towards the victim means that the perpetrator prefers the absence of the victim. Hence, the victim is not used as a means. When the harm is caused out of self-defense or the protection of one’s property, this harm is mostly considered less immoral than abusive and accidental harm.

Hate crimes and passionate murders are examples of aversive harm, but I expect that most readers are not involved in such crimes. When it comes to aversive harm caused by most people, the biggest culprit is probably agriculture. To protect our crops, we apply pest control and insecticides that harm (kill) animals. Pest control is a kind of self-defense, and it is not always clear whether pest control contributes negatively to the aggregate welfare in the world. For example, when most wild animals have net negative welfare, pest control means that fewer of those animals will be born, which prevents negative experiences. And if animals who feed on our crops would have net positive welfare, one could argue that those happier animals owe their existence to our agricultural activities. Without our agriculture, those animals would not have been born. And when those animals could not eat our crops, they may die from starvation. These considerations imply that this aversive harm could be much less immoral than abusive and accidental harm. Nevertheless, in terms of numbers of sentient individuals being killed, the aversive harm caused by agriculture is probably the biggest human-caused harm (at least if invertebrate animals such as insects are sentient).

How to minimize harm

The impact of human activity is often expressed in a mathematical equation: I = P x A x T, where I is the environmental impact, P the population, A the affluence and T the technology factor. This equation can also describe human-caused harm as the product of the human population (P, the number of humans), the average activity per person (A) and the harm caused per unit activity (T, depending on the technology used for the activity).

The three factors indicate how we can reduce our harm or impact: reduce the human population P, the activity level A or the technology factor T. When it comes to daily personal decisions, reducing the level of harmful activities could sometimes be feasible. Driving less or flying less could be possible, but eating less is often more difficult. It is clear that reductions of P and A cannot drive the impact all the way to zero, unless the population or activity level approach zero. This means that one factor is really crucial for minimizing harm: technology. Only with technologies it is feasible to drive the impact all the way to zero.

Focusing on the technology factor T has two main benefits. It not only has the potential to completely eliminate (instead of merely reduce) harm, but also doesn’t require much behavioral change or political action. Changing your own behavior could be easy and effective, but convincing everyone else to change their behavior is much more difficult (requiring a lot of time and effort). Technologies can make political action more feasible: when we have a cheap, effective new technology that reduces harm, it becomes more politically feasible to ban the old, more harmful technologies. In other words: a techno-fix could be more effective than a behavioral fix or political fix.

The two benefits of the technology focus imply that research and development of new technologies that reduce harm, is very effective. Economists have shown that e.g. the social returns to R&D are very high. So we have to look for the best technologies that can reduce the abovementioned three types of harm.

Clean meat, and more generally animal-free and cellular agriculture, is the first highly effective technology that allows to minimize and eliminate abusive harm caused by animal agriculture. Clean energy (carbon-free energy) is most effective to eliminate the accidental harms caused by climate change (although animal-free agriculture is also promising, as it can strongly reduce agricultural land use and allow for massive reforestation). And indoor vertical agriculture could be the most promising technology to decrease the aversive and accidental harms caused in agriculture.

Indoor vertical farming has two benefits, as indicated by the two adjectives ‘indoor’ and ‘vertical’. First, it is indoor, which means that crops are grown in well-controlled environments, with difficult access for rodents and insects. The crops are better protected against pests. This reduces the use of rodenticides and insecticides, and hence reduces aversive harm. Second, it is vertical, which means that the crops are not dependent on soil. Hydroponic and aeroponic systems allow for the crops to grow in water or air instead of soil. These soil-free agriculture systems reduce the use of heavy outdoor machinery and soil tilling, and hence reduce accidental harm. Other agricultural practices, such as organic agriculture (when outdoor and in soil), are less effective in reducing accidental and aversive harms.

What you can do to eliminate harm

Cellular agriculture, vertical agriculture and clean energy are three categories of technologies that are animal-free, soil-free and carbon-free. They avoid the use of broiler, soil and oil. In doing so, they can most effectively reduce and eliminate abusive, accidental and aversive harms. Therefore, these technologies require much more research and development. You can support this R&D by funding ITIF for carbon-free clean energy, New Harvest, Cellular Agriculture Society or The Good Food Institute for animal-free cellular agriculture, and the Association for Vertical Farming for indoor vertical agriculture.

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Why cell-based meat will be better (infographic)

I made an infographic, why we can expect that cell-based meat will be much better than animal-based meat.

You can support open source scientific cell-based meat research and development by donating to New Harvest and the Good Food Institute.

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Opposing cell-based meat: a serious irrationality in the animal rights movement

A few years ago, for the first time I changed my mind about an important issue: genetic modification (GMOs). As a member of the environmental movement that is strongly opposed against GMOs, that change of mind was not easy. In the aftermath discussions, I became increasingly worried that many fellow environmental activists had irrational (counterproductive) beliefs, not only about GMOs, but also about nuclear energy and non-organic farming.

As I became more and more involved in the effective altruism movement, where science and reason are crucial to improve the world, I became increasingly aware of the importance of critical thinking. In the process, I changed my mind about many beliefs and I even discovered new cognitive biases, such as the moral gravity bias, which can be added to the long list of cognitive biases. I realized that many long-time activists and even experts and university professors had irrational beliefs. During the corona pandemic, I was surprised to see so many of my activist friends, who are concerned about human health and freedom, being so negative about vaccines and important measures to fight the pandemic. Those antivax-friends on social media, including highly educated people and environmental activists, have really dangerous irrational beliefs. I also saw more and more irrationalities in other movements I was involved in, such as the social justice movements (the feminist movement, the anti-capitalist movement,…).

What about the animal rights movement? In recent years I started to have a few disagreements with some fellow animal rights activists, e.g. about male privilege in the movement, about intersectionality, about the effectiveness of idealistic versus realistic strategies, and the importance of wild animal suffering. I realized that many people in the animal rights movement, who fight against speciesism, and the social justice movements, who fight against racism and sexism, were still susceptible to discrimination biases (irrational discriminatory beliefs) themselves. Still, I was optimistic that the level of irrationalities of people in the animal rights movement was limited.

But now I stumbled on a website, created by vegan animal rights activists, that made me really angry: Clean Meat Hoax. This website openly critiques cell-based meat. This is worrying, because recently I argued that cell-based meat is one of the most extreme effective approaches to help animals by avoiding the suffering of farm animals. My major worry is that cell-based meat could become the new GMO: the environmental movement attacked GMOs and as a consequence GMOs that could strongly benefit the environment are rejected by consumers and producers in many countries. The ecomodernists and effective environmentalists try to put GMOs back on the agenda, but they are strongly criticized by the traditional environmental movement who sticks to dangerously irrational beliefs e.g. about naturalness (that GMOs are unnatural and therefore bad, whereas organic farming is natural and therefore good). I recently wrote and spoke about why we need veganmodernism, the sister of ecomodernism, which embraces and promotes new food technologies such as cellular agriculture and cell-based meat.

To sharpen our critical thinking, in this article I want to debunk some of the claims and arguments on that Clean Meat Hoax website. The selective thinking, inconsistencies, wrong analogies, logical fallacies and factual errors on that website are all similar to pseudo-science. So here we learn about a clear example of pseudo-science in a (for the moment small) part of the animal rights movement. The message is: for those animal rights activists who do not like cell-based meat, it is better to not say any opinions about it. Just remain silent instead of openly criticizing cell-based meat.

Selective thinking

The Clean Meat Hoax website shows some examples of selective or one-sided thinking. One objection against cell-based meat is that ‘Big Meat corporations’ are also investing in cell-based meat (and plant-based meat suitable for vegans). Once these large corporations sell cell-based meat on the market, people who care about animals may buy cell-based meat from those corporations. But those corporations also still invest in animal-based meat. Hence, when vegans and animal rights activists buy cell-based meat or plant-based meat from Big Meat corporations, a part of their money can go to investments in animal agriculture and animal-based meat. So those animal rights activists are seduced to buy something that allows extra investments that cause animal suffering. But this concern of a negative impact reflects a one-sided reasoning. One should also point at the accompanying positive impact when Big Meat invests in cell-based meat. The traditional meat eaters who buy animal-based meat at those corporations, now give money that can equally be invested by the corporations in animal-free, cell-based and plant-based meat. If people buying cell-based meat at those corporations are responsible for investments in animal-based meat, the people who buy animal-based meat now become automatically responsible for investments in animal-free meat, which is good, because the money of those meat eaters cause a reduction of animal suffering. It is one-sided to only point at the negative consequences and not the positive ones.

Opponents of cell-based meat doubt whether cell-based meat is effective (i.e. cheap, accepted by consumers). However, those opponents should equally doubt whether traditional animal rights campaigns are effective. One should not only consider the effectiveness of one side (cell-based meat), but also of the alternative sides (other vegan campaigns).

A third example of selective thinking on the Clean Meat Hoax website is the reference to the AT Kearney report. It points at a conclusion of the report: when cell-based meat is on the market by 2040, the total number of animals killed will be almost the same as in 2020. The reason is that the global consumption of meat (including cell-based meat) is expected to increase with 3% per year, and cell-based meat takes up most of this increase. But the website fails to mention three points. First, according to the study, cell-based meat is expected to occupy 41% of the global meat market within 20 years. Without cell-based meat, animal-based meat is likely to occupy this share. Hence, cell-based meat strongly reduces the consumption of animal-based meat according to the reference scenario of global meat consumption growth. This demonstrates the high effectiveness of cell-based meat. Traditional animal rights campaigns never realized a 41% reduction of animal-based meat consumption within 20 years. Second, by 2040 new vegan meat replacements will occupy only 9% of global meat consumption. This is much smaller than the 41% share of cell-based meat. Hence, in terms of replacing animal-based meat, new vegan products are expected to be less effective than cell-based meat (contrary to what the authors of the Clean Meat Hoax website believe). And third, the website fails to mention what will happen after 2040. Extrapolating the AT Kearny expectations beyond 2040, it is likely that cell-based meat takes an increasingly large share of the global meat market, such that say in 2050 animal-based meat consumption will be lower than in 2020.

Inconsistencies

The arguments on the Clean Meat Hoax website involve some inconsistencies.

First, when vegans address some of those criticisms against cell-based meat, an inconsistency arises because the same critique also applies to products that are supported by vegans, namely plant-based meat and vegan dairy alternatives. So one should equally create e.g. a “Vegan Meat Hoax” website.

For example, cell-based meat is considered a problem because some meat companies invest in it, while those companies still invest in animal-based meat and state that they do not consider cell-based meat as a replacement but as a complement to animal-based meat. It is even suggested on the website that the Big Meat corporations are pursuing a catch and kill strategy: buying up new animal-free food technologies (intellectual properties) from small start-ups in order to control (and limit) their use. But some meat and dairy companies, who still invest in animal products, also invest in vegan meat and dairy alternatives and also consider vegan products as complements instead of replacements, and also could try the catch and kill strategy with new vegan food technologies. By that reasoning, that would imply that the vegan sausages, vegan cheeses and soy milks are problematic as well.

Opponents of cell-based meat are worried that it is “unlikely ever to replace meat from live animals, including ones confined in factory farms, is because there are very powerful institutional, economic, and cultural forces in play to ensure that never happens.” But the same goes for vegan products: powerful forces want to ensure that global veganism never happens.

Another worry is that cell-based meat strongly resembles animal-based meat, such that consumers are likely to want the “real thing”. But the same goes for plant-based meat that strongly resembles animal-based meat. Justin van Kleeck is cited on the website: “[Cell-based meat creates] the categorical problem of keeping ‘meat’ as a concept on the human plate. As long as the culture of meat is not challenged–which cultured meat doesn’t do–I don’t believe that real, live animals will ever get off the plate either. The preponderance of meat very likely means that ‘real’ meat will always have a cultural cachet that alternatives–whether plant based or lab grown–will struggle mightily to overtake. […] It [cell-based meat] will create a vicious circle that actually drives people to seek out ‘real’ animal flesh (as well as ‘real’ dairy and eggs, which both also feed into the culture and industry of flesh.)” The opponents of cell-based meat are worried that cell-based meat reinforces the myth that meat is essential. But if these arguments are correct, then vegan animal rights activists should also criticize, vegan barbeque products (because barbeque still symbolizes the consumption of animal flesh), vegan milk products (because drinking white fluids reinforces the idea that cow’s milk is for humans) and other vegan products that strongly resemble animal products.

There is an easy trick to rebut many arguments on the Clean Meat Hoax website. Change the word “meat” in “food”, “protein” or “sausage”. If the assumptions of the arguments are still valid (i.e. the argument goes for “food”, “protein” or “sausage” as well), but the conclusions are not accepted, one can expect a mistake in the argument. Take the statements on the website: “One of the key messages being conveyed to the public by the cellular or Clean Meat lobby is that, because humans are used to eating meat, they will always eat meat, and therefore must continue to be provided with meat–and not only tomorrow or the day after, but for all of eternity.” or “By propping up meat, ‘clean’ meat perpetuates the speciesist view that animals are meat and thus perpetuates violence.” Now use the words “food”, “protein” or “sausage” instead. The statements are still valid: humans are used to eating food, protein and sausages, they will always eat food, protein and sausages, the view that animals are food or sausages is speciesist. However, if these statements are necessary to conclude that clean meat is bad, one can equally conclude that food, protein or sausages are bad. As this conclusion is not accepted, those statements are vacuous and not necessary.

A second kind of inconsistency can be seen in the non-consequentialist ethic reflected on the website. It is claimed that huge injustices such as genocides or animal farming are “singularities”, “fundamentally irreducible”. The example is given of a genocide killing 3 million instead of 6 million people, making the genocide better only “in the abstract sense”. It is as if a genocide is infinitely or uncountably bad, and a genocide twice the size is equally bad, because two times infinity is still infinity. This is an example of non-consequentialist thinking: a consequentialist would minimize the size of the genocide in order to save as many lives as possible, but for a non-consequentialist the size matters not. Consequentialist thinking can (but does not have to) imply that the ends justify the means. In the initial stages of cell-based meat research and development, animals are used as means, for example bovine fetal serum is used as growth medium and animal experiments are performed for safety testing. The end product does not use animals (bovine fetal serum will be replaced by much cheaper and effective animal-free growth media, and animal experiments are no longer necessary once everything is tested). As animals are used in the initial stages, many opponents of cell-based meat criticize consequentialist thinking, by claiming that the ends do not justify the means. But these non-consequentialist arguments, when combined, contain a contradiction. The extra animal experiments increase the size of the problem (the use of animals). But to those non-consequentialists, size does not matter. As a smaller genocide makes the genocide better only in the abstract sense, a larger genocide makes the genocide worse only in the abstract sense. But then using bovine fetal serum and animal experiments to develop cell-based meat would make the problem of animal exploitation worse only in the abstract sense as well.

Avoiding this inconsistency in non-consequentialist thinking means that we should allow some kind of consequentialism. But then the opposition against cell-based meat reflects an extreme, irrational high level of loss aversion. Consider a bet with a dice. You can pay me 10 dollar to play a game. I roll the dice. When it gives a 1, you lose and receive nothing. When its value is higher than 1, you win and I pay you 1000 dollar every year for the rest of your life. If you do not want to play this game, because you do not want to risk losing and paying 10 dollar for nothing, then you are extremely loss averse. Now we can translate this example to cell-based meat. Someone develops cell-based meat and uses 10 animals for research. With a low probability (say 1 in 6), cell-based meat will not be effective, it will have no impact and those 10 animals are used for nothing. With a high probability, cell-based meat will enter the market, have a positive impact and replace animal-based meat to some degree, such that every year 1000 animals are spared, for say 100 years. This is a bet: with a low probability we lose and 100.010 animals are exploited, with a high probability we win and 10 animals are exploited. If we don’t play this game, 100.000 animals are exploited. Especially when it comes to doing good and helping animals, extreme loss aversion is irrational because the animals do not share such loss aversion preferences. Hence, not playing this game (which means choosing for the exploitation of 100.000 animals) because of an extreme level of loss aversion is irrational.

Using wrong analogies

Many of the arguments on the Clean Meat Hoax website are invalid because they use wrong analogies. A trivial example is the analogy between cell-based meat for meat lovers to eat and surrogate robot children for abusive parents to beat up and abuse. The contexts of parental abuse and meat consumption are vastly different, so this analogy is not valid.

A more challenging analogy refers to technological efficiency improvements and Jevons paradox: when technologies and appliances become more energy efficient, the decreasing costs can result in more use of the technologies and in extreme cases total energy use or total environmental impact can become higher than without the technology. A 10% reduction in environmental footprint per product can be offset by a more than 11% increase in product use. The same goes for animal welfare improvements. Consider transport: when cars replaced horses, horse suffering decreased, but transport (speed and distances travelled) increased a lot, resulting in much more deaths by accidents, air pollution and roadkill. When farm animal suffering decreases with say 10%, from 10 to 9 units of suffering per animal, people might think that the meat is more humane and as a consequence they eat more meat. If meat consumption increases with a factor 10/9 or more, this increased consumption offsets the 10% decrease in suffering per animal. The total amount of animal suffering can increase when a technology does not completely eliminate the suffering per animal. However, with cell-based meat, animal suffering can decrease with 100% per animal, from 10 to 0, because no animals will be used. In that case, no backfire effect or Jevons paradox occurs: animal suffering remains at zero even when meat consumption increases with a factor infinity (10/0). Of course, if cell-based meat would face a Jevons paradox and increase animal suffering, the same would go for plant-based meat, which is again inconsistent with the belief that vegan food is good because it reduces animal suffering.

A third example is the wrong analogy between cell-based meat and recycled paper. As we see Big Meat corporations buying up plant-based and cell-based meat producers, the website points at the fact that the big corporation Koch Industries purchased a recycled paper producer Georgia-Pacific and now sells recycled paper at higher prices than its virgin paper. As demand for recycled paper remains low (even after all those decades), the concern is that demand for cell-based meat will remain low as well. Again, the same can be said about demand for vegan, plant-based meat. But recycled paper cannot be compared with cell-based and plant-based meat, because recycled paper will always remain in limited supply if correct paper waste collection is limited. When people don’t recycle paper, recycled paper becomes scarce and expensive. Cell-based meat on the other hand does not rely on behavior of consumers that can create scarcity.

The website cites Dinesh Wadiwel who makes a fourth wrong analogy between the problem of animal farming and problems such as racism or homophobia: “It is highly problematic to expect tech industries to come up with solutions to injustice, just as we would not expect technologies to deliver solutions to wealth inequality, racism, patriarchy, ableism or homophobia.” First of all, when it comes to patriarchy, there are technologies that empowered women and hence reduced patriarchy: the washing machine, the pill (birth control), and even the computer (statistical computer programs that enable to analyze data and indicate subtle kinds of labor discrimination of women). Second, even if there are no technologies that deliver solutions to e.g. homophobia, it does not imply that other problems, such as animal farming, cannot be reduced with technologies. Third, imagine tech industries invented technologies that could reduce homophobia just like cell-based meat could reduce animal agriculture. Then it is not self-evident that traditional actions against homophobia always will remain more effective than those technologies or make those technologies obsolete. Traditional campaigns did not deliver the solutions against racism or homophobia so far, so they are not clearly top-effective.

Other two examples of wrong analogies that offer skepticism about cell-based meat are zirconia (imitation diamond) and polyacrylates (fake fur). These imitation products are cheaper than their counterparts, mined diamonds and animal furs, but did not manage to outcompete their counterparts. Hence, the argument goes, cell-based meat is not expected to outcompete its counterpart, animal-based meat. However, as these products are not the same substance as their counterparts, they should rather be compared with plant-based meat instead of cell-based meat. Cultured (synthetic) diamonds and cell-based fur should be compared with cultured, cell-based meat. Second, diamonds should not be compared with meat, because diamonds are very exclusive and, when used as jewels, are a Veblen good: a luxury good of which the demand increases when the price increases. In contrast, meat is consumed by the large majority, and its elasticity of demand is negative: a price increase results in a lower demand. The fact that consumers value diamonds and meat differently, is a valid difference between those two products.

Still, the case of cultured diamonds is interesting. The price of cultured (synthetic) diamonds dropped below mined diamonds around 2016. In 2018, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission revised its Jewelry Guides, at the dislike of the largest diamond company De Beers, by removing the word “natural” from the definition of diamond and hence acknowledging that cultured diamonds are diamonds. In that same year, De Beers started selling cultured diamond jewels themselves. This looks similar to the situation of cell-based meat, where the question whether cell-based meat can be called meat is on the table. Even though diamond jewels are Veblen goods, it remains interesting to see the coming years to what degree cultured diamonds are going to impact e.g. the market of blood diamonds. When new cultured diamond producers enter the market, the increased competition is likely to reduce the sales of blood diamonds. It is possible that mined diamonds will still be sold, because people attach more authenticity to mined diamonds than to cultured diamonds. This authenticity relates to scarcity, like an original piece of art from a famous painter. Even though exact replicas of the painting can be sold much cheaper, people value the more expensive original painting more. The scarcity/authenticity effect generates a higher price, and this higher price can turn those paintings and mined diamonds into Veblen goods. It is possible that a minority of meat eaters strongly value the authenticity of animal-based meat, and when animal-based meat becomes more scarce and more expensive, those people start to value that animal meat even more, just like mined diamonds. Hence, cell-based meat can strongly decrease animal-based meat consumption, but possibly not eliminate it. Elimination probably requires animal rights activism, and when only a small minority of meat eaters prefer animal-based meat that involves animal abuse, animal rights campaigns to completely eliminate animal-based meat become easier. In other words: cell-based meat can make the final push by animal rights activism more effective.

Unsubstantiated claims

The website makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims. These claims both lack empirical evidence and are counterintuitive, so a priori they are unlikely to be true. Some examples.

“The problem with depicting animal flesh as having a paramount aesthetic and even “existential” value, a value that so enhances human life that giving it up would surely amount to a hardship, is that it only makes it that much harder for vegans and animal advocates to shift consumers away from meat obtained by killing animals.” There is no evidence for such a strongly counterintuitive claim. When consumers have better and better access to plant-based and cell-based meats, and when cell-based meat is given a paramount aesthetic and existential value, it makes it easier for vegans to shift consumers away from animal-based meat obtained by killing animals.

“The Meat Industry fold cellular meat into its wider strategy of preserving animal agriculture.” The meat industry wants to preserve the meat industry, but not necessarily animal agriculture. They are basically indifferent between animal-based and cell-based meat, as long as it is sufficiently profitable to preserve the meat industry. The animal agriculture industry wants to preserve the animal agriculture industry. If a meat company wants to preserve animal agriculture, it will do so simply by investing in animal-based meat. That company realizes that investments in cell-based meat are not effective to preserve animal agriculture, so if they do invest in cell-based meat, it is for other reasons and hence is not part of a strategy to preserve animal agriculture.

“Destructive corporations greenwash and veganwash their products and reputations.” When corporations sell more sustainable and animal-free products, and when this results in a decrease of unsustainable and animal products, it is not greenwashing. Greenwashing occurs when a corporation makes a product a tiny bit more sustainable in order to increase sales in such a way that total environmental impact increases, just like Jevons paradox. For example, greenwashing can occur when a meat company blends in a small percentage, say 10%, of plant-based meat into their animal-based meat products and promotes these mixed products such that their total sales increase with more than 11%, hence increasing the total consumption of animal-based meat. But first, we see an inconsistency again, because this argument would imply that plant-based, vegan protein sources, which equally allow for greenwashing, are as bad as cell-based meat. Second, there are meat companies who sell 100% vegan, plant-based meats, and that is not greenwashing. Selling 100% plant-based and cell-based meats do not generate such a backfire effect, and hence do not count as greenwashing or veganwashing. Furthermore, when cheap cell-based meat comes on the market, meat companies are likely to sell 100% cell-based meat products, because why would they blend in animal-based meat cells into their new, cell-based meat product, when the animal-based meat cells taste exactly the same but are more costly and less efficient to produce than the cell-based meat cells?

“With this message, the Clean Meat lobby may be locking us into a future in which humans remain as attached as they are today to the fraudulent belief that we can only thrive on the bodies of other animals–including living ones.” There is simply no evidence that the promotion of animal-free meats reinforces that fraudulent belief. After all, animal-free meats do not use the bodies of other animals, so it demonstrates that the belief is fraudulent. Hence, the claim not only lacks evidence, but is a priori counterintuitive.

“Meat remains the flesh of an animal, and as long as that conceptualization of animals as meat remains…animals will die.” As cell-based meat clearly is not the flesh of an animal, in the sense that there is no animal involved in its production, it becomes wrong to say that meat remains the flesh of an animal. Cell-based meat does not conceptualize animals as meat. It only conceptualizes cell-based meat as meat.

“In fact, there is no way to advertise the (supposed) aesthetic and health benefits of “clean” or lab-grown meat without at the same time reinforcing the dominant myths and lies of meat culture as a whole.” As with the promotion of plant-based meat and vegan products, advertising cell-based meat by saying that it is delicious and has health benefits (for example less foodborne illness or infectious disease risks) does not have to reinforce meat culture lies and myths. If someone promotes vegan products by telling lies and myths, that is no argument against vegan food. Similarly, the fact that some may advertise cell-based meat in a way that reinforces myths, is not a valid argument against cell-based meat.

Other objections

The Clean Meat Hoax website contains many other types of fallacies.

Misrepresenting proponents of cell-based meat. On the website we can read: “Instead of educating the public about the truth of animal agriculture, the horrific violence that is its basis, Clean Meat advocates seek to “cleanse” the public conversation about meat of any reference to the actual facts of animal suffering. Instead of engaging in moral discourse or embracing animal rights, they explicitly disavow ethics and depict speciesism as a mere “technical” problem–one that will soon be fixed by amoral capitalist entrepreneurs.” “It seems appropriate, if perverse, that the person [Bruce Friedrich] now leading the Clean Meat lobby’s strategy to de-center animals and to cover over the violence being done to them recently told the national press that he doesn’t care about animals himself, anyway.” “The Clean Meat lobby has thus set up a false dilemma, suggesting that consumers in the future will have to choose either between Clean Meat, on the one hand, or meat from animals raised on “high-welfare” farms, on the other.“ “I think part of the very reason in vitro is being developed is to try and “ward off” the growing appeal of actual vegan options (i.e. ‘to keep people eating meat’). In other words, ‘clean’ meat is akin to ‘clean’ coal:  a supposed techno-fix utilized to ward off the appeal of actually valid and sustainable options.” To be clear: cell-based meat proponents did and still do educate the public about animal agriculture and ethics, and do not see speciesism as a mere technical problem. Bruce Friedrich does care about animals in the sense that he believes animals have rights and he does things in order to satisfy the preferences of animals, but not in the sense that he feels a personal sentimental or emotional connection with those animals. Cell-based meat proponents do not set up that false dilemma: they allow for a third option, namely plant-based meat. And the proponents (many of them vegan) have no intention to ward off vegan options. Their goal is stopping people to eat animal-based meat, not keeping people to eat meat.

Presenting advantages as disadvantages. The authors of the Clean Meat Hoax website are anticapitalists and claim that cell-based meat is a problem because it fits in with capitalism and big corporations. It is possible that cell-based meat decreases animal agriculture and hence benefits animal rights, while keeping a capitalist system, keeping the free market, keeping big corporations, and even keeping “dominant myths and lies of meat culture” and keeping “ethics off the table”. Instead of being disadvantages, these are advantages. A strategy that fights against animal exploitation is a priori less likely to succeed if that strategy requires extra things that are difficult to achieve, for example requiring the destruction of the capitalist system, or requiring that people start putting “ethics on the table”. A more complex strategy that requires to overcome more hurdles, is usually more difficult and less effective. In the past, technologies realized strong reductions of basic rights violations of draft horses (replaced by cars for transport), oxen (replaced by tractors for plowing), hunted whales (whale oil replaced by kerosene for oil lamps), messenger pigeons (replaced by telephones for communication), laboratory rabbits (replaced by human skin tissues for cosmetic testing), pigs (replaced by recombinant DNA bacteria for insulin), bees (beeswax replaced by light bulbs for lighting), sheep (wool replaced by synthetic fibers) and movie animals (replaced by computer animated CGI-animals), without having to fight against capitalism, corporations, governments, ideologies, myths, beliefs or stubborn human attachments. Now imagine that, first, we did not have these new technologies, and second, we had to reduce the exploitation of those horses, oxen, whales, pigeons, rabbits, pigs, bees, sheep and other animals by destroying capitalism and the most powerful corporations. That would have been far more difficult.

Reading what is not written. The authors of the website complain that cell-based meat marketing mostly mentions environmental and public health benefits instead of animal benefits: “The fact that animals are always mentioned last in these (cell-based meat) marketing campaigns is troubling. The message, again, is that animals matter, but only a little.“Plans to market Clean Meat as a more ecologically sustainable alternative to flesh from farmed animals may convince some consumers to switch.  But it is unlikely that sustainability alone will prove a sufficiently strong selling point to get people to change deeply entrenched personal consumption habits.” If animals are not mentioned or are mentioned last, it cannot be concluded that animals matter only a little. The marketing messages never say that animals matter only a little. Similarly, if sustainability is mentioned in a marketing campaign, it does not imply that the marketeers believe that the sustainability message is a sufficiently strong selling point. The marketing campaign might simply target the lowest hanging fruit, i.e. people who strongly value sustainability and are willing to change their personal consumption habits. Furthermore, the statement has a wrong assumption: cell-based meat does not require that people change their deeply entrenched personal consumption habits. People can still eat all the meat products that they ate, but the production processes of those products no longer involved animals. With other vegan food, people often have to (or at least think they have to) change their consumption habits. They have to learn how to prepare the new vegan meals. And traditional meat eaters also believe that eating vegan requires a change not only of behavior but also of  personal identity (implied in expressions such as “becoming vegan”). With cell-based meat, traditional meat eaters do not even have to change their identities.

Not reading what is written. The authors claim that companies and even animal advocates who invest in cell-based meat are “leaving the public in its vast ignorance concerning the suffering of animals and the injustice of all forms of animal agriculture.” “The more Big Meat dominates and controls the market in vegan and alternative flesh products, the more it is likely to de-highlight violence against animals as a public concern.” The animal advocate proponents of cell-based meat clearly do not leave the public in ignorance about farm animal suffering. But, very remarkably, KFC-Russia wrote in a press release about their intention to develop and sell cell-based chicken nuggets: “Cell-based meat products are also more ethical – the production process does not cause any harm to animals.” With cell-based meat, even Big Meat acknowledges that animal-based meat causes harm to animals. Imagine what vegan animal rights activists would have to do so that Big Meat uses such words.

Making premature assumptions about conclusions of scientific research. To conclude my criticism of the Clean Meat Hoax website, I want to raise a serious concern, something we saw happening when the environmental movement took a position against GMOs. The website points at environmental and safety concerns of cell-based meat. For example, a claim is made that cell-based meat might have characteristics of cancerous cells. That choice of language is similar to the language used against GMOs. Environmental activists raised concerns about the environmental impact and safety risks of GMOs. When those risks were scientifically studied and evaluated, they did not hold up, but the opponents of GMOs did not accept these results and kept raising the same unsubstantiated concerns against GMOs. As for the environmental impact: the authors of the website criticize a few very premature life cycle analyses of cell-based meat. It is easy to criticize those studies, because cell-based meat is not yet on the market and we do not know yet what methods will be used to mass-produce cell-based meat. What we can expect, however is that those methods will be far more efficient (and hence having a lower footprint) than the current methods to produce cell-based meat, for the simple reason that a lot of research is being done on how to improve the production process.

We cannot say yet what the carbon footprint of cell-based meat on the market will be, because we do not yet have empirical data. But we can already make a prior estimate based on theoretical predictions and knowledge of thermodynamics, chemistry and biology. Suppose someone wants to produce meat cells and asks biologists and engineers to invent an effective meat production technology. An inventor comes up with an idea: let’s use animals. Look at the animal’s body. The legs: they increase the surface area, allowing for more heat to escape the body. Now the animal requires more food to sustain its high metabolism. More food means more land use and more manure pollution, because all that food is turned into inedible manure instead of tasty meat cells. That manure pollutes our rivers. The skin: the animal has a rather thin skin instead of a thick insulation layer consisting of a highly insulating material, like roof insulation. That means even more heat energy can escape. So the animal needs to eat even more, and we have to use energy to heat the barns. The eyes: completely useless, and our high-tech camera’s are more energy efficient, but no, let’s produce organic eyes. The bones and teeth: also not tasty, and requiring a lot of phosphorus. Yes, phosphorus can become a scarce mineral, but let’s create a lot of useless bones anyway. The lungs: perhaps only useful to be turned into pet food, but ideal for infectious respiratory diseases such as flu viruses that could become pandemics. The stomach: with its methane producing bacteria ideal to increase our greenhouse gas emissions. The intestines: also inedible and ideal breeding grounds for often harmful bacteria. Now we can use more antibiotics, creating harmful antibiotic-resistant gut bacteria. And let’s finish our design with a really sadistic finishing touch: the brains, real energy gluttons, driving up the metabolism (energy use and manure production) even higher. And most of all: these brains create conscious experiences of suffering. So we have it all: our animal meat production units use a lot of land, create a lot of polluting manure, deplete some mineral resources, create dangerous diseases, and causes suffering. Now compare this production design with the designs that current cell-based meat researchers are working on: well-insulated, very hygienic tanks that only produce the required meat cells. Based on what we know from physics, chemistry and biology, the latter designs are expected to be much more energy and resource efficient and much less polluting than the design with the animal. You don’t need a science degree to understand that.

Addendum: Clean-Meat Hoax replied to this article, to which I give another lengthy response here.

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Veganmodernisme: de val van de vee-industrie?

Dit artikel verscheen ook op de blog van het Humanistisch verbond.

1894. Londen kampt met een ernstig milieuprobleem: de grote paardenmest crisis. Het platteland werd omgevormd tot gigantische hooischuur, maar al dat paardenvoer belandt uiteindelijk op straat onder de vorm van paardenmest. Ook New York gaat gebukt onder de druk van de paardenkoetsen. De hoefijzers maken een hels lawaai, de paarden luisteren niet altijd en bezwijken van vermoeidheid. Kinderen spelen op straat tussen de paardenkadavers. Hoewel iedereen erkent dat de paardenkoetsen ernstige problemen veroorzaken, gelooft niemand dat paarden ooit uit het straatbeeld zullen verdwijnen. Met de fiets is te vermoeiend en de recent uitgevonden auto is veel te duur.

Dat was eind negentiende eeuw. Een decennium later kwam Henry Ford met zijn model T op de markt. Door de nieuwe massaproductieprocessen werd de auto heel goedkoop en liep ze heel snel van de band. De auto’s waren allemaal zwart, want enkel zwarte verf droogde snel genoeg. Daar kon de paardenkoetsindustrie niet tegenop. Binnen de vijf decennia daalde het gebruik van paarden met een factor tien, vanzelf, zonder acties van dierenactivisten, campagnes van milieuorganisaties of regulering van overheden. Ook de walvisjacht kelderde door de uitvinding van kerosine voor de olielampen. En miljoenen postduiven verdwenen door de telegraaf en telefoon. De schapenteelt daalde drastisch door de komst van nylon kunststofvezels. Het gebruik van varkens voor insulineproductie werd gestaakt door genetisch gemanipuleerde bacteriën die menselijke insuline produceren. De konijnen voor cosmeticatesten werden vervangen door menselijke huidcelculturen. En in de filmindustrie zien we een digitalisering van dieren: in 1978 speelde Clint Eastwood nog naast een echte Orang-Oetan, in 2020 zit Harrison Ford naast een computergeanimeerde hond (want een echte hond aanleren om tegelijk te blaffen en te lopen, is moeilijker).

Al tienduizend jaar verkennen we het technologielandschap, de ruimte van alle mogelijke technologieën. Omdat we veel in contact kwamen met dieren, gingen we al snel dieren gebruiken in onze technologieën, voor voeding, transport, communicatie, geneesmiddelen, vermaak enzovoort. Maar dat bos van dierlijke technologieën in het technologielandschap is redelijk klein. Omdat dieren door trage, blinde evolutie zijn ontstaan, zijn ze niet geoptimaliseerd om in onze technologieën te passen. We vinden steeds meer nieuwe, diervrije technologieën uit die effectiever zijn. Anno 2020 zijn we al veel verder gevorderd in het technologielandschap en staan we op veel hogere bergtoppen. Op alle vlakken worden dieren vervangen door diervrije technologieën, waarvan we steeds efficiëntere uitvinden. Ook in de landbouw. Vroeger waren dieren nodig in de landbouw, om de akkers vruchtbaar te houden en oneetbare voedselresten te verwerken, en in de voeding, om mensen te voorzien van essentiële eiwitten, mineralen en vitaminen. Maar nu ontdekken we steeds meer gezondere en milieuvriendelijkere, diervrije alternatieven voor vlees, zuivel en eieren. Volwaardige veganistische voedingspatronen behoren nu tot de gezondste, milieuvriendelijkste, en natuurlijk diervriendelijkste voedingspatronen.  

De mondiale veeteelt creëert nieuwe zoönotische infectieziektes zoals varkensgriep en vogelgriep, veroorzaakt de meeste voedselschandalen, verbruikt drie kwart van de antibiotica, bezet drie kwart van de landbouwgrond, gebruikt een derde van de pesticiden en stoot een zevende van de broeikasgassen uit. De veeteelt is gevaarlijk voor de volksgezondheid en het milieu. Enkele recente publicaties in Nature wijzen op een sterk onderbelicht voordeel van veganisme. Als we mondiaal veganistisch zouden eten, dan komt er bijna een miljard hectare landbouwgrond vrij die geschikt is voor spontane herbebossing. Die bossen kunnen meer dan de helft van alle CO2 opnemen die door fossiele brandstoffen in de atmosfeer en de oceanen terecht kwam sinds de industriële revolutie. Met een veganistische voeding vermijd je de uitstoot van 1 ton CO2-equivalenten per jaar en kan je daarenboven nog eens 6 ton CO2 per jaar opvangen door herbebossing. Ter vergelijking: een gemiddelde mens op aarde stoot ongeveer 7 ton CO2 per jaar uit. Dit maakt van diervrije, veganistische voeding mogelijks een van de effectiefste klimaatmaatregelen.

Maar dan is er de vraag: wat is de kosteneffectiefste methode om een mondiale diervrije voeding te realiseren? Jezelf overtuigen om veganistisch te eten hoeft je niets te kosten, maar campagnes om anderen te sensibiliseren en aan te zetten om vlees te minderen, zijn niet kosteloos. We kunnen protestacties doen tegen de vee-industrie, maar die gaan zich verzetten. En de uitdaging ligt bij de traditionele vleeseters, die niet open staan voor boodschappen zoals “eet veganistisch” of “wordt veganist”. Dergelijke boodschappen geven de indruk dat men nieuwe dingen moet leren (zoals veganistisch koken) en van gedrag en identiteit moet veranderen (een veganist moet worden). Dat stuit op psychologische weerstand.

Technologische innovaties in de voedingswetenschap laten straks toe om een nieuwe boodschap te brengen: “Eet vlees, geen dieren”. Met precisiefermentatie en cellulaire landbouw zouden we diervrij celkweekvlees kunnen maken, dus spierweefsel zonder dier, dat een stuk goedkoper, veiliger, diervriendelijker en milieuvriendelijker is dan dierlijk vlees. Hetzelfde geldt voor melk zonder koe en ei zonder kip. Veganistische gedragsverandering wordt dan overbodig. We hoeven het dan zelfs niet meer te hebben over veganisme, want mensen kunnen nog steeds vlees, zuivel en eieren eten. Alleen worden er geen dieren meer gebruikt in het productieproces.

Als we kijken naar bijvoorbeeld een koe, dan wordt het duidelijk dat diervrij celkweekvlees beter is dan dierlijk vlees. De dunne huid van het dier zorgt voor veel warmteverlies, waardoor het dier een hoog metabolisme heeft, dus veel moet eten en daardoor veel landbouwgrond nodig heeft en veel oneetbare mest produceert. Ook de lange poten en staart vergroten het lichaamsoppervlak waardoor extra warmte-energie kan ontsnappen. De beenderen zijn oneetbaar en vereisen fosfor, een schaarser wordende grondstof. De hoeven zijn oneetbaar en zijn vatbaar voor infecties wanneer de koe in haar eigen uitwerpselen moet staan. De magen van de koe zijn oneetbaar en produceren methaan, een krachtig broeikasgas. De lever produceert ongezonde verzadigde vetten die afgezet worden in het spierweefsel. De darmen zijn oneetbaar en zijn ideale broeihaarden voor schadelijke darmbacteriën die het vlees kunnen besmetten, waardoor extra antibiotica nodig is en de bacteriën antibioticaresistent kunnen worden. De longen zijn oneetbaar en zijn ideaal voor virale infectieziektes die kunnen uitmonden tot zoönotische pandemieën (denk aan de varkensgriep en vogelgriep). De hersenen zijn oneetbaar, verbruiken erg veel energie, en ze creëren een bewustzijn waardoor het dier veel leed ervaart in de veeteelt. De ogen en andere zintuigen zijn totaal overbodig. Een technologie die dieren gebruikt om vlees te produceren, is dus een toonvoorbeeld van een slecht ontwerp. Dat kan beter, bijvoorbeeld met een heel proper, afgesloten bioreactorvat waarin enkel de relevante spiercellen in optimale omstandigheden kunnen groeien.

Het financieel steunen van wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar celkweekvlees zou wel eens superkosteneffectief kunnen zijn. Even een ruwe berekening. De mondiale veeteelt is een grootschalige vorm van dierenleed, waarbij jaarlijks zo’n 100 miljard veedieren opgesloten en gedood worden. In Europa krijgt die veeteelt jaarlijks 30 miljard euro subsidies. Daarmee vergeleken is diervrij celkweekvlees sterk verwaarloosd: de mondiale financiering (door overheden, bedrijven en vooral door rijke investeerders zoals Bill Gates) voor onderzoek en ontwikkeling van celkweekvlees bedraagt slechts zo’n 100 miljoen euro per jaar. Stel dat die investeerders elk jaar evenveel blijven investeren totdat spotgoedkoop kwaliteitsvol celkweekvlees op de markt komt (mogelijks binnen twintig jaar). Eens het op de markt komt, zullen consumenten de productie en marketing wel betalen. Nu (de komende twintig jaar) kunnen we dat proces versnellen door zelf een centje bij te dragen. Als we een euro doneren aan celkweekvleesonderzoek, zouden we dat celkweekvlees dan pakweg een honderdmiljoenste van een jaar sneller op de markt hebben. Stel dat dat celkweekvlees conservatief geschat slechts een kans op tien heeft om de problemen van de veeteelt op te lossen (of slechts 10% van de vee-industrie kan wegconcurreren).

We hebben nu drie getallen (100 miljard veedieren, 1/100 miljoen euro en 10% kans) die aangeven hoe grootschalig het veeteeltprobleem is, hoe sterk verwaarloosd het alternatief is en hoe sterk het alternatief een oplossing biedt. Vermenigvuldigen we die getallen, dan komen we (heel ruw geschat) uit op een kosteneffectiviteit van 100 veedieren per euro. Met andere woorden: geven we een euro uit aan celkweekvleesonderzoek, dan besparen we het leed van 100 veedieren in gevangenschap. Een dergelijke kosteneffectiviteit ligt al gauw tien of honderd keer hoger dan traditionele veganistische campagnes en is onhaalbaar met bijvoorbeeld een uur actie voeren of vrijwilligerswerk doen bij een dierenrechtenorganisatie.

Die 100 veedieren komen overeen met een broeikasgasuitstoot van 10 ton CO2-equivalenten. Met 10 ton CO2-reductie per euro is celkweekvleesonderzoek een erg kosteneffectieve manier om onze CO2-uitstoot te compenseren. De meeste CO2-compensatieprojecten hebben een kosteneffectiviteit van minder dan 0,1 ton CO2 per euro. Binnen de Effectief-Altruïsmebeweging is het al langer geweten dat een kleine minderheid van goede doelen en maatregelen om de wereld te verbeteren veel effectiever zijn dan de grote meerderheid.

De berekening van de kosteneffectiviteit van maatregelen tegen dierenleed laat zien hoe waardevol geld is, zeker als het geïnvesteerd wordt in technologisch onderzoek. Binnen de milieubeweging ontstond het ecomodernisme dat focust op technologische innovaties om milieu- en klimaatproblemen op te lossen. De organisatie Let’s Fund analyseerde de impact van verschillende klimaatmaatregelen en concludeerde dat onderzoek en ontwikkeling van ‘clean energy’ het meest doeltreffend is. Hetzelfde geldt voor ‘clean meat’ (celkweekvlees). Zo kan binnen de dierenrechtenbeweging het veganmodernisme ontstaan, dat wijst op de hoge effectiviteit van technologische innovaties in diervrije voeding. Dat veganmodernisme zou wel eens tot de val van de vee-industrie kunnen leiden.

Mocht je ook willen bijdragen aan een van de meest effectieve dierenwelzijns- en klimaatmaatregelen, dan kan je geld doneren aan New Harvest of The Good Food Institute, die open source wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar celkweekvlees financieren.

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Discrimination biases

Unwanted arbitrariness is the most important threat for a rational ethic. An important category of unwanted arbitrariness, is discrimination, with the three most known and important examples: sexism, racism and speciesism. Discrimination is fundamentally immoral and should be avoided. However, even people fighting against sexism, racism and speciesism are sometimes vulnerable to discrimination biases. As a result of these biases, they risk discrimination themselves. In this article I present three discrimination biases and give examples of these biases for sexism, racism and speciesism. The goal of this article is to improve rational, critical thinking that helps in the fight against all kinds of discrimination.

Defining discrimination

First we have to define discrimination. Here I define it with three conditions: 1) privileging A over B, 2) based on arbitrary criteria and 3) without tolerating swapping positions. Privileging A over B means treating A better than B in a way that B cannot consistently want (if B were rational and well-informed). Arbitrariness of criteria means that no rule was followed to select the criterion. Swapping positions means treating A like B and vice versa.

A prime example of an arbitrary criterion, is group membership. Consider the group of everyone. This group can be divided in several subgroups, which can be further divided in subsubgroups and so on. Sexists, racists or speciesists select respectively the subgroups of males, whites and humans that are defined by biological characteristics such as sex (in particular genitals), race (in particular skin-color) and species. They could have selected other subgroups (such as females, blacks and pigs), and they could have selected other biological characteristics (such as voice pitch, hair color and biological phylum). As no rules were followed to selected the specific subgroup, or to select a subgroup instead of the group or a subsubgroup, or to select the kind of biological characteristic, the selections made by sexists, racists and speciesists are arbitrary.

When A and B in the definition of discrimination refer to subgroups, a privilege can be detected in terms of a statistical difference between the A and B groups. Statistical discrimination is present when the actual shares (e.g. shares of the total number of crime victims, shares of the total income, shares of the positions of power) differ from the population shares (the relative number of individuals in the subgroups) and this difference cannot be explained by morally relevant criteria (such as personal preferences, degree of innocence,…). Statistical discrimination can be detected by considering a counterfactual ‘blind’ society (e.g. gender blind, color blind, species blind) where the biological characteristic was erased or not visible, or a uniform society, where everyone belonged to the same sex, race and species and is then randomly assigned a sex, race or species. If the pattern in such a blind or uniform society would be different from the actually observed pattern, and if this pattern difference cannot be explained by relevant factors, then statistical discrimination is present. Statistical discrimination can most easily be explained by some people having discriminatory attitudes and behavior. Hence, if statistical discrimination is present, then this is evidence that at least some people discriminate.

To analyze the discrimination biases, we have to consider two distinctions: first the distinction between the undeserved privileged and the undeserved disprivileged (where ‘undeserved’ means not based on morally relevant factors), and second the distinction between two subgroups: the ingroup or A-group and the outgroup or B-group. With respect to sexism, racism and speciesism, the A-group are respectively the men, whites and humans, the B-group are the women, non-whites (e.g. blacks) and non-humans (e.g. pigs). A person from the A-group can be either privileged or disprivileged (I will omit ‘undeserved’ for simplicity), and the same goes for someone from the B-group, so there are four possibilities (privileged A, disprivileged A, privileged B and disprivileged B). There is no statistical discrimination if the shares of privileged are the same in both the A-group and the B-group.

Discrimination neglect

The first discrimination bias is the simplest to understand, as it simply involves not seeing or acknowledging some kind of discrimination. Anti-discrimination activists notice one kind of statistical discrimination, namely the discrimination of disprivileged B (e.g. women, black people), but not the discrimination of disprivileged A (e.g. men, white people). Discrimination neglect is similar to confirmation bias (accepting information that confirms one’s prior beliefs and rejecting contradicting evidence): when the data indicate statistical discrimination of the usually considered disprivileged group B, the data are accepted. When the data point towards discrimination of group A, they are rejected or neglected.

Discrimination neglect of a statistical discrimination allows for an easy test: suppose the data were reversed (i.e. the shares of subgroups A and B were interchanged). If in that case the anti-discrimination activists would put the issue on their agenda, there is statistical discrimination neglected by the anti-discrimination activists.

The most examples of discrimination neglect are examples of statistical sexism. Anti-sexists such as feminists focus on examples where women are disadvantaged relative to men and often strongly neglect examples where men are disadvantaged relative to women. There are several such examples of reverse sexism, where men are discriminated (e.g. child custody, paid parental leave, retirement age, military draft, rescue operations, unemployment rates).

Concerning statistical racism, clear examples are more difficult to find. One example could be violent crimes: US violent crime statistics (2018) show that white on black violent crimes are ten times less likely than expected based on population shares, whereas black on white crimes are 1,4 times more likely than expected. Whites are 9% more likely to be victim of a violent crime, whereas blacks are 17% less likely, compared to a color-blind society. Hence, there is more violence with black perpetrators and white victims than vice versa, contradicting the white supremacy view. This data could indicate statistical discrimination, at least if white and black victims are equally innocent and white and black perpetrators are equally guilty (for example if whites are oppressing blacks, blacks could retaliate by more violent crimes, but whites are more guilty of racism).

I am not aware of examples of discrimination neglect when it comes to speciesism.

The problem with discrimination neglect, is of course that it can perpetuate certain kinds of discrimination.

Privileged-disprivileged bias

The privileged-disprivileged bias can be considered as a specific kind of discrimination neglect that can occur in situations where the A-group and B-group have the same mean value of a property (e.g. wealth, status), but the A-group has a larger spread (i.e. a larger variance or wider statistical distribution) than the B-group. The property can take values from high to low and hence constitutes a hierarchy. The larger spread means that we see more A’s than B’s at the top of the hierarchy, but also more A’s than B’s at the bottom. The privileged-disprivileged bias is a focus on either the top or the bottom (usually the top). A is judged to be privileged, because there are more A’s than B’s at the top. The disprivileged A’s at the bottom are neglected. Similarly, when A is judged to be disprivileged due to the larger share of A’s at the bottom, the privileged A’s at the top are neglected.

There are several examples of privileged-disprivileged bias when it comes to sexism, because it happens that men have a wider statistical distribution for many properties. Consider wealth, and in particular the possession of real estate. Most of the people at the top, i.e. people living in large villa’s or castles and having secondary residences, are men. But also most people at the bottom, i.e. the homeless, are men. The same goes for job status. Most people with the highest status jobs (e.g. ministers and managers), are men, but also most people with the lowest status jobs (the dirty and dangerous jobs such as garbage collector or foot soldier), are men. Other examples: the people with the most sexual partners, are men, the people with the fewest sexual partners, are men. Most perpetrators of violent crimes, are men, most victims of violence, are men. Most people with ecstatic, luxurious lives, are men, most people who commit suicide, are men. The larger variance of men can perhaps be explained by their higher risk taking behavior or the larger variance in cognitive abilities such as IQ.

A related privileged-disprivileged bias is observed in speciesism. Individuals that cause the most animal suffering, are mostly humans, individuals that are most helpful to animals, are also mostly humans. Compared to humans, non-human animals are not so good at helping other animals. Humans can be both animal’s worst enemies and animal’s best friends.

The problem with privileged-disprivileged bias is that it is a hasty generalization that could be harmful to the people in the worst-off positions, the most disprivileged people, by stereotyping them as being privileged. This can happen when speaking about ‘male privilege’, which risks trivializing or disacknowledging the disadvantages experienced by those men who are worst-off. One could say men are privileged because most people at the most privileged positions are men, but one could equally say that men are disprivileged because most people at the most disprivileged positions are men. Anti-sexist activists who focus on male privilege might become too misandrous (men hating). Similarly, anti-speciesist animal rights activists who focus on the harms caused by humans, might become too misanthrope.

Perpetrator-focused discrimination bias

Discrimination neglect (and privileged-disprivileged bias) deals with accepting or neglecting empirical data and is therefore a judgment bias about empirical facts. In contrast, perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is a judgment bias about normative values. The former deals with factual beliefs, the latter deals with moral beliefs.

The perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is the judgment that harm caused by someone from the A-group is worse than harm caused by someone from the B-group. When the perpetrators are A’s, their harm is considered worse than if they were B’s. This results in a kind of discrimination, where the B-group receives a kind of privilege, i.e. a permission to cause more harm, or a sentence reduction (a smaller punishment). A moral rule like “harm caused by A is morally worse than harm caused by B”, explicitly refers to arbitrary groups A and B, and this discriminates A against B. To avoid discrimination, moral rules should never explicitly refer to arbitrary groups. We can also see that such a perpetrator focus and such moral rules involve discrimination, by listening to the victims. Assuming those victims do not have discriminatory attitudes themselves, for them it does not matter whether their harm was caused by an A or a B. If the victims do not make a value distinction and do not have a preference for the group membership of their perpetrators, then no-one should make such a value distinction. We have to care about what the victims care about, and the victims do not care about the sex, race or species of their perpetrators.

An example of this bias in sexism, is criminal sentencing. Men receive 60% higher sentences than women for equal crimes. Arrested women are more likely to avoid convictions and are twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. This is confirmed by other studies. The latter research by Sigrid von Wingerden in the Netherlands indicates that when a woman kills a man, the sentence is 1,6 years lower than when a man kills a man. It could hypothetically be that men are more responsive to punishments than women, which means that higher sentences for men is an effective policy to reduce crimes. But I am not aware of strong evidence in favor of this hypothesis. Hence, this difference in criminal sentencing is likely to involve sexism. If a man is the perpetrator, it is apparently worse than when a woman is the perpetrator. Female perpetrators become more privileged with such a sexist sentencing policy.

An example concerning racism, is the difference in media attention about killings. Blacks killed by whites (think about fatal police shootings in the US) receive more media attention than blacks killed by blacks, although blacks are almost 7 times more likely to be killed by blacks than by whites. Even more extreme: if society were color blind (as if there were only one race), and the number of blacks killed by blacks remained the same, the number of blacks killed by whites would be 30 times lower than the number of blacks killed by blacks. In a color blind media, one would therefore expect 30 times more reporting of killings by black perpetrators than by white perpetrators. This discrepancy in media attention is an indication that the death of a black person is considered worse when the perpetrator is white person (e.g. a white cop) than when the perpetrator is black. Assuming the victim is not racist, for the victim the skin color of the perpetrator is irrelevant.

The most painfully ironic example of perpetrator-focused discrimination bias relates to speciesism. Many anti-speciesist animal rights activists are predation supporters, which means they believe that predation in nature without human interference is never morally bad and that human interventions in nature that knowingly eliminate predation can never be good (not even when these interventions would increase aggregate welfare of wild animals). Those animal activists are against hunting by a human hunter, but condone or support hunting by a lion, even if that lion never respects the most basic animal welfare laws, causes more panic to prey animals and kills more prey animals than a human hunter. The animal activists often explicitly claim that human-caused animal suffering is worse than animal-caused animal suffering. Hence, they explicitly refer to an arbitrary species in their moral rule, and this leads to speciesism. The suffering wild animals don’t care about who causes the suffering. They simply don’t want this extreme unnecessary suffering, and for them it doesn’t matter if it is caused by humans or by non-humans. The predation supporting animal activist is even against research on how to safely and effectively intervene in predation such that wild animal welfare increases, claiming that such interventions violate the autonomy of predators and consist of anthropocentric speciesist human arrogance. This is most ironic, because by catching prey animals, the predator takes away all of the autonomy of those prey animals, and neither the predator nor the prey have this speciesist belief that species membership of the perpetrator is morally relevant. When arrogance means imposing one’s own beliefs or values on others, by imposing their own speciesist moral rule on prey animals, the predation supporting animal activists themselves are being arrogant.

A mirror image of perpetrator-focused discrimination bias is victim-focused discrimination bias, whereby the harm done to a victim of the B-group is considered worse than the harm done to a victim of the A-group.

Three examples of this bias relate to sexism. First, genital mutilation, whereby non-therapeutic, unanesthetized neonatal genital mutilation of girls is strongly prohibited and rejected but the mutilation of boys is mostly condoned. Second, shelters for victims of domestic violence, whereby the ratio of number of shelters for female victims to shelters for male victims is orders of magnitude larger than the ratio of female victims of domestic violence to male victims of domestic violence. Third, criminal sentencing, whereby a man who kills a woman gets a longer prison sentence than a man who kills a man. Concerning racism, we can note that the ratio of the number of media reports about a black person killed by a police officer to the number of media reports about white victims of police violence is larger than the ratio of the number of black people killed by cops to the number of white people killed. Hence, if the victim is black, that victim receives relatively more media attention.

These examples suggest that when a man or a white person is harmed (killed, genitally mutilated,…) it is apparently not as bad as when a woman or a black person is harmed. However, this does not yet imply real discrimination.

First, as with affirmative action, one can argue that this differential treatment of victims serves to rectify another discrimination by giving more privileges to members of the disadvantaged group. If women and black people are generally disadvantaged, measures to target perpetrators of female and black victims can be justified, because those measures advance the positions of the worst-off, namely the disadvantaged women and blacks. Note that with perpetrator-focused discrimination bias, women or black people also gained a privilege, but it concerned an advantage to harm others, and such a privilege is not justified to correct for other disprivileges.

Second, with perpetrator-focused discrimination, the victim did not share the discriminatory attitude. For the victim there is no difference between being a victim of an A-group perpetrator or a B-group perpetrator. But for victim-focused discrimination bias, we have to look at the attitudes of the perpetrator instead of the victim. The perpetrator can be a real sexist, racist or speciesist. The victim-focused discrimination (e.g. stronger punishments for A-group perpetrators who harm B-group victims) can serve to counteract this discriminatory attitude of the perpetrator.

Note: these two considerations also imply that some of the examples of reverse sexism that I gave here, are not necessarily really sexist. Arguments in favor of some differential treatments of men and women could be given, such that the related statistical differences do not yet indicate statistical discrimination.

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Relativistic welfare, farm animal abolitionism and wild animal welfarism

Brief summary: whether someone’s aggregate welfare is positive or negative is morally relevant. If welfare is negative, life is not worth living and it would be better not to exist (or better to be euthanized). However, especially when it comes to non-human animals, it is difficult to tell whether their lives have an aggregate positive or negative welfare. What if we cannot determine whether farm animals or wild animals have a positive or negative welfare? Einstein’s theory of special relativity is used as an analogy to understand the possible indeterminacy of the sign of someone’s welfare. The level of someone’s welfare depends on the welfare frame, but there does not exist an absolute welfare frame. This indeterminacy or relativity of welfare has implications for our altruistic choices to do good. In particular I argue that animal welfare relativity implies farm animal abolitionism (abolishing animal farming with new food technologies such that no new farm animals are born) and wild animal welfarism (helping nature with new technologies to increase the welfare levels of wild animals). Farm animal welfarism and wild animal abolitionism would be ethically more risky.

Introduction

Doing good, in an altruistic sense, means doing what other individuals want (benefiting others by improving their welfare), and not doing what they do not want (not harming others by not decreasing their welfare). The former is called positive altruism, the latter negative altruism. In familiar cases, respecting positive altruism automatically implies respecting negative altruism, and violating negative altruism implies violating positive altruism. However, the two kinds of altruism become uncoupled in population ethics, when our choices determine the individuals who will exist in the future. Adding an individual with a negative welfare (i.e. a life not worth living, whereby the individual has stronger negative than positive experiences or would have preferred non-existence) is always bad, and it can be said that the individual is harmed when brought into existence. But bringing into existence an individual with a positive welfare (a life worth living) is not necessarily always good, according to asymmetric accounts of altruism. Not bringing into existence a person with a positive welfare does not harm that person, because that person does not exist.

When deciding whether bringing an individual into existence is permissible, a crucial question becomes: when does a life become worth living? This question becomes relevant when we study the problems of farm animal and wild animal suffering. Is the life of an animal born in a factory farm worth living? Does a wild animal have more negative than positive experiences such that one would prefer not being born as that wild animal? People who reflect on the lives of farm and wild animals, often believe that many of those animals have lives not worth living, i.e. with negative welfare. But uncertainties remain, especially for wild animals.

In this article, I use Einstein’s theory of special relativity as an analogy to understand the issue in population ethics. It is possible that a welfare level around zero is not absolute in the sense of well-defined for everyone. Welfare could become relative.

When does a life become worth living?

In my personal situation, I can say that my life is worth living, that it has a positive welfare level. I can also imagine a situation in great pain and suffering, where I would rather be dead. Hence, somewhere there should be a zero level of welfare. This can be determined with a rather abstract thought experiment.

Suppose there are three situations. Situation A is the current situation, situation B is the same as A, except that my brains will change in such a way that I will have a lower welfare level, but my behavior remains exactly the same as in A. No-one is able to tell that my welfare is low (when asked how high it is, I will lie and say that it is as high as in situation A). Hence, my lowered well-being will not induce feelings of compassion in other people. Everyone except me remains equally happy as in situation A. Finally, situation C is the same as situation A, except I will be a mental zombie. That means I will do the same things as in situation A, but I will not have any conscious experiences. As a zombie, I am mentally dead or non-existent, but no-one will know whether I am mentally dead. Hence, no-one will grief about my death. Everyone except me remains as happy as in A.

When in situation B, my welfare is lowered, at one point I will become indifferent between situations B and C. I will become indifferent between keeping on living a conscious life in situation B, or mental euthanasia, becoming a zombie in situation C. The welfare level in situation B, when I become indifferent, is my level zero, neutral reference point. (Note that this level zero is relative to situation A. When situation A changes, for example when a loved one starts suffering, my zero welfare level could change.)

The above thought experiment is very abstract, and hence some individuals might not be able to perform it. This is in particular the case for non-human animals. For those animals, two things are possible. Either they are inherently unable to determine their zero levels of welfare, as if their zero levels are not well-defined. Or they do have well-defined zero levels, but are not able to tell them. Even scanning their brains with the best brain scanning technologies, we remain uncertain about the true zero welfare levels of animals. Hence, we are able to tell whether an animal in situation X is happier than in Y, but not able to tell whether the welfare levels in X and Y are higher or lower than zero, i.e. higher or lower than in situation Z where the animal is a mental zombie. Only the differences in welfare count, not their absolute levels.

How should we deal with this indeterminacy or uncertainty about the zero level? The theory of special relativity could shed some light on this issue. So let us briefly digress and look at this strange theory.

Simultaneity in special relativity

Consider five events: nodding my head, stamping of my left foot, stamping of my right foot, snapping of my left fingers and snapping of my right fingers. These events are well located in space and happen at a specific time, and hence can be described as five space-time points, denoted by P0, P-, P+, P’ and P’’. Now the question is: which of those events happen simultaneously? The notion of simultaneity is problematic according to special relativity.

Five space-time events: P+ is in the future of P0, P- is in the past of P0, but events P’ and P” are outside of P0’s lightcone and hence can happen simultaneously with P0 according to some reference frames.

Let’s say that event P0, the nodding of my head, happens at time zero (i.e. time zero is defined in this way). This is the default time with respect to which we want to determine whether other events happen in the future or the past of P0. Suppose event P-, stamping of my left foot, happens before P0. How can we know that event P- happens at a negative time? When I stamp my left foot, light signals can travel from my foot to my head at the speed of light. Crucially, the speed of light is finite, and all observers measure the same speed of light. Hence, the speed of light is absolute. If the light reaches my head before I nod my head, then stamping my left right foot (event P-) happens in the past of time zero, i.e. before P0, for all observers. Everyone agrees that P- occurs before P0, so this time difference is absolute. Technically: in a space-time diagram, the point P0 has a future and a past light cone (light moving away or towards space-time point P0), and points within the past light cone are in the past of P0 (i.e. an earlier time according to all observers).

Similarly, when at the moment that I nod my head, light starts to travel from my head to my right foot and reaches the foot before I stamp that foot, the third event P+ happens after P0 according to all observers. Event P+ is in the future light cone of P0 and is registered at a positive time by all observers.

Now consider light traveling from my head to my left hand. When event P’, the snapping of my left fingers, happens before the light reaches my left hand, different observers will disagree whether or not P’ happens before or after P0. In this case, P’ is outside of P0’s light cone, and it is possible to choose a reference frame (e.g. measured relative to a non-accelerating rocket) such that P0 and P’ have the same time coordinate and hence are simultaneous space-time events: the person in the rocket sees the two events happening at the same time according to his personal clock. According to this reference frame, both P0 and P’ happen at time zero.

Finally, suppose that event P’’ (snapping of my right fingers) is in the future light cone of event P’, which means that light from my left hand to my right hand reaches the right hand before the right fingers snap. Then everyone agrees that event P’’ happens after event P’. If P’ happens at time zero, P’’ happens at a later, positive time.

Now we can change the reference frame, by considering a second rocket moving at a very high constant speed relative to the first rocket. This relative speed is close to the speed of light. (Technically, this change in reference frame is a Lorentz transformation of four-dimensional space-time, which is somewhat comparable to a rotation in three-dimensional space: the Lorentz transform ‘mixes’ or ‘interchanges’ a spatial and a temporal dimension, just like a rotation ‘mixes’ two spatial dimensions.) According to the person in the second rocket, P0 and P’’ happen simultaneously. The clock of this observer measures event P’ happening at a negative time, i.e. before event P0 which we defined as time zero.

The time when something happens, is relative in special relativity. There are two observers, one in each rocket. According to the first coordinate system (the reference frame of the first observer), t measures the time of event P’, the snapping of my left fingers, which was zero. After a Lorentz transformation, the time t’ in the new coordinate system becomes negative, which means that the snapping of my left fingers happens before the nodding of my head according to the observer in the second rocket. Hence time zero for events P’ and P’’ is not absolute or well-defined for all observers.

Special relativity is a bit counterintuitive, because we are used to transitivity: when A is bigger than B and B bigger than C, than A is bigger than C. Or when A is equal to B and B is equal to C, than A and C are equal. However, this latter kind of transitivity is not valid in special relativity: P’ is simultaneous to P0 (according to the reference frame of the first rocket), P0 is simultaneous to P’’ (according to the reference frame of the second rocket), but P’’ happens later than P’ (according to all reference frames). This intransitivity does not make space-time inconsistent or irrational, neither does it make the notion of time incomprehensible.

Relativistic welfare ethics

Now let’s move again to welfare ethics. Just like different observers measure time in special relativity, different observers can estimate the welfare level of an animal, and these estimates can differ. The welfare of the life of a person w is analogous to t/x in special relativity, where t is the time and x is the spatial distance (e.g. the distance between hands and feet). The welfare can be positive or negative, just like time can be positive or negative. However, the welfare value is not always absolute: it can be positive according to one welfare frame and negative according to another, just like time can be positive or negative according to different reference frames. The welfare frame allows to measure welfare, and is analogous to the reference frame or coordinate system in special relativity that allows to measure spatial distances and time intervals. A change in welfare frame corresponds to a change in reference frame, which is represented by a Lorentz transformation. This Lorentz transformation for the welfare between different welfare frames can be written mathematically as: w’ =(w-v/c²)/(1-vw), with w the welfare according to the first welfare frame, w’ the welfare according to the second welfare frame, v a parameter that measures the change between the welfare frames, and c a constant. (The derivation goes as follows: w’ is analogous to t’/x’, with t’ and x’ the time and space coordinates in the new reference frame or coordinate system. v is now interpreted as the velocity of the second rocket relative to the first rocket, and c is the constant speed of light. Using the Lorentz transformation, we can write w’=t’/x’ in terms of w=t/x.) This equation is valid for welfare levels w between -1/c and +1/c, and the parameter v is between -c and +c. Note that if w=1/c, then w’=w.

According to the first welfare frame, the welfare w of an animal can be zero, whereas a change in welfare frame gives a welfare w’ lower than zero. Hence, the zero welfare level of an animal is not unique or well-defined. When the welfare level w is between 1/c and +1/c, the sign of the welfare level is relative, i.e. dependent on the welfare frame. On the other hand, when w is very high (higher than +1/c), the sign is absolute: all welfare frames give a positive welfare. That means everyone agrees that the individual has a positive welfare.[1]

The constant c (the speed of light in special relativity) measures how well-defined a zero welfare is. For me, doing the above abstract thought-experiment is possible, which means a zero welfare is rather precise and well-defined, which means for me c is very large, almost infinite. But for a non-human animal, c can be finite and small. When c is small, the animal has a wide welfare range between -1/c and +1/c, and within this range a zero welfare is not well-defined. For example, when an animal has welfare w=0, we cannot conclude that this animal is indifferent between having a life at this welfare level and non-existence, because we can change the welfare frame such that the animal has a welfare w’ anywhere between -1/c and +1/c. Similarly, the welfare of an animal with welfare w=0 cannot be compared to the welfare of another animal with welfare w’=1/2c, because there is no absolute zero level.

Implications for altruism and animal ethics

If a zero welfare level is not clearly determined, at least for animals, we cannot always say whether the existence of an animal is good or bad. The existence would be bad if the welfare is negative, but if the welfare is higher than -1/c, after a Lorentz transformation (a change in welfare frame) we can get a positive welfare, which means the existence is no longer bad. Asking the animal which welfare frame (reference frame) she prefers, is impossible: the animal is not able to answer this question. In a sense, the animal is indifferent between the different welfare frames.

For simplicity, suppose we can choose between five options C0, C+, C-, C’ and C’’, just like we discussed five space-time events in the special relativity example above. Option C0 is the situation where no animal exists. This option serves as the default option, just like P0 defined the default time zero. In the other situations, animals exist. When animals are clearly better-off in C+ than in C0, the animals in C+ have a positive welfare w+. Choosing C+ respects positive altruism: it can be considered as a kind of help whereby we do something that someone else (the existing animal) wants. Similarly, when animals are worse-off in C- than in C0, they have a negative welfare w- in C-. Choosing C- means doing something bad and violating negative altruism: we do something that someone else does not want. The tricky issue is: there may be choices C’ and C’’ in which animals exist who does not exist in C0, and we cannot simply say that the animals are worse-off or better-off in C’ or C’’ than in C0.

Let us first consider farm animals and then wild animals. We can choose between five options: C0 is no animal farming, which involves e.g. eating vegan, producing cell-based meat,… This option means not breeding and using animals. If we do not exist, option C0 is automatically chosen, because we will not breed and use animals. Hence, C0 is our default option.

Option C+ means bringing fully happy animals in existence. These animals are not used for animal farming: the animals are not confined and slaughtered, but instead are cared for as much as possible such that they lead happy, healthy long lives. These animals are given everything they want and are not used for our purposes. Suppose that everyone agrees that these animals have a positive welfare. In that case, those happy animals have welfare levels above 1/c.

Option C- means animal farming in factory farms with current, minimal animal welfare legislation. This implies breeding, confining and slaughtering the animal for food. Most people strongly agree that animals in factory farms have very negative welfare levels. Because of this strong agreement, we can say that those animals have welfare levels likely below -1/c.

Option C’ is animal farming with more animal welfare laws, i.e. breeding and slaughtering animals, but taking more care of them, avoiding extreme confinements,…. Suppose we cannot determine whether these animals have positive or negative welfare. These farm animals have a welfare between -1/c and 1/c.

Finally, option C’’ is like C’, but with one extra measure that benefits the farm animals, such that the animals in C’’ are slightly happier than in C’.

If we choose option C-, we clearly violate negative altruism, because we do something that the animal does not want. First, the animal has a negative welfare, and second, the animal always prefers any other option above C-. The welfare of the animal is lowest in option C- according to all welfare frames, just like all observers agree that event P- happens at a negative time.

If we choose option C+, we clearly respect positive altruism: we do something that the animal in situation C+ prefers: an existence with the highest, positive welfare.

The cases for C’ and C’’ are mixed. There exist welfare frames according to which choosing C’ or C’’ violate negative altruism, because the welfare levels in those situations are negative. Furthermore, C’ and C’’ involve animal farming, whereby the animal always has to do or undergo unwanted things, such as being slaughtered or confined. Hence choosing C’ or C’’ does not guarantee respecting negative altruism. Neither does it guarantee respecting positive altruism.

Here we see a difference between farm animal abolitionism versus farm animal welfarism. The former involves choosing C0, the latter means choosing C’’. For example, if we become vegan ourselves, we always directly respect negative altruism because we do not choose situations C-, C’ or C’’ that someone else (the animal) does not always want. If we support research and development of animal free livestock products such as cell-based meat, we indirectly respect negative altruism, because with these animal free foods we allow other people (e.g. future living meat eaters) to respect negative altruism by avoiding animal farming. The development of new food technologies such as cell-based meat is an abolitionist strategy.

Next to abolitionism, some animal advocates prefer the welfarist approach. This approach basically means choosing option C’’: animal farming with animals that have higher welfare levels than the farm animals in situations C- and C’. However, this welfarist approach is neither always respecting negative nor positive altruism, which means that the welfarist approach is weaker in terms of altruism.

Furthermore, the welfarist approach faces a non-identity problem. Suppose a new farm animal welfare law is in place, which means animal farming changes from situation C’ to C’’. From that moment, new farm animals are born who automatically have welfare w’’. Without that law, other animals would have been born who would have had welfare levels w’ in situation C’ or w- in situation C-. The question is: did we help the animal in situation C’’ by choosing C’’? If situations C- or C’ were chosen, farm animals would be worse of, but they will not be the same farm animals who exist in situation C’’. The farm animals in situation C’’ do not exist in situations C0, C- and C’. If the animals in situation C’’ were helped, they by definition have a higher welfare level than in the situations without the help. But in the situations without help (i.e. situations C-, C’ or C0 without the new welfare law), those animals do not exist. And the welfare w’’ is incomparable to the zero welfare level that corresponds to the welfare level of non-existence. Hence, with these considerations, it becomes difficult to claim that the animals in C’’ were really helped. The farm animal welfarist approach is not clearly altruistic.

Finally, we move towards wild animal welfare. Again, we can consider five situations D0, D-, D+, D’ and D’’. Suppose animals in the wild live in situation D’ with welfare level w’. In that situation we cannot say whether their lives are worth living or not, because w’ is incomparable to the welfare w0 in situation D0 which contains no wild animals. The latter welfare level w0 equals 0.

Just like the abolitionist choice of C0 in the case of animal farming, we can choose to respect negative altruism by choosing D0 for wild animals. However, there is an important difference between the cases of farm animals and wild animals. Choosing D0 instead of D’ for wild animals typically means interventions in nature that could decrease the welfare of already existing wild animals. The transition from D’ to D0 means that the welfare of animals existing in D’ drops below w’. This transition could for example involve killing all wild animals such that no new wild animals can be born. When an animal has a clearly negative welfare, as in situation D-, killing that animal (i.e. euthanasia) would be helpful and good. But when the animal has a welfare w’ higher than -1/c in situation D’, the welfare is only negative in some welfare frames, which means killing that animal is not clearly permissible and may very well be harmful.

In contrast, choosing C0 for farm animals means stopping breeding farm animals. The latter does not generally decrease the welfare of existing farm animals. In other words, the transition from C’ to C0 does not decrease the welfare of farm animals existing in C’. Hence, choosing C0 for farm animals respects negative altruism (it is not harmful for existing farm animals), but choosing D0 for wild animals not necessarily respects negative altruism (it may be harmful for existing wild animals).

Therefore, when it comes to wild animal welfare, the welfarist approach of changing the situation from D’ to D’’ (or ideally D+) becomes more worth considering. That change from D’ to D’’ means helping nature to improve the welfare of wild animals. It is possible that the animals in D’’ would not have existed in D’, which means choosing D’’ does not involve positive altruism (the animals in D’’ are not really helped, just like the farm animals in C’’ were not really helped). However, the transition from D’ to D’’ does not necessarily involve a strong decrease in welfare of the existing animals in D’. That means choosing D’’ instead of D’ could respect negative altruism more strongly than choosing D0 instead of D’. And with sufficient research in welfare biology to improve the welfare of wild animals, it may become possible to choose a situation D+ where wild animals have clearly positive welfare levels (just like most humans in modern-day societies have clearly positive welfare levels).

Conclusion: farm animal abolitionism and wild animal welfarism

In summary, in the case of farm animal suffering, the abolitionist approach of choosing the situation without farm animals (C0) is the safest and most feasible option to respect negative altruism. The welfarist approach of choosing the situation with happier farm animals (C’’) is less good because it is riskier in terms of respecting negative altruism. Also, choosing the situation with clearly happy farm animals (C+) is not so feasible.

In the case of wild animal suffering, the abolitionist approach of choosing the situation without wild animals (D0) is risky because it quickly implies harming existing wild animals (i.e. decreasing their welfare). The welfarist approach of choosing the situation with happier wild animals (D’’) is probably the safest and most feasible option. With more research, choosing the situation with clearly happy wild animals (D+) may become feasible.


[1] In ethics, to make interpersonal comparisons of well-being possible, we can set w’=w when w is higher than +1/c or lower than -1/c, i.e. no Lorentz transformation. In special relativity, w’ =(w-v/c²)/(1-vw) for all w large and small, positive and negative.

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The extreme cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D

Updated October 2020: improved calculations.

In previous articles, I argued that supporting research and development of cell-based meat technologies could be perhaps the most important strategy to protect animal rights and improve animal welfare (with a possible exception of research in welfare biology to improve wild animal welfare). Here I want to do a very rough back-of-the-envelope Fermi-estimate calculation of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D, and compare it with traditional animal rights and vegan advocacy campaigns. I only estimate the orders of magnitude, in powers of ten. The results are presented in the table below. The three measures are:

  • The number of vertebrate animal saved per euro, which includes all fish, birds and mammals that are no longer killed by humans for food (i.e. excluding invertebrates and animals not directly killed by humans).
  • The number of vertebrate land animals spared per euro, which includes all farm animals that are no longer bred in captivity.
  • Ton CO2e emissions avoided, which includes all anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are no longer emitted, measured in CO2-equivalents.

Cell-based meat R&D calculations

There are 1011 vertebrate land animals used (i.e. bred and killed) per year by humans. Assume that this number is constant until cell-based meat enters the market. The number of vertebrate animals directly killed by humans for food is an order of magnitude higher: 1012. The human population counts 1010 humans, also assumed to be constant, which means an average human uses 10 vertebrate land animals per year and kills 100 vertebrate animals per year. Hence, eating vegan for one year spares 10 animals and also saves 100=1 ton CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

Assume in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not contribute) the current amount of money is funded (by other people) every year until cell-based meat becomes cost-competitive with animal-based meat on the market. Global funding for cell-based meat is 108 euro per year. This corresponds with 102 cell-based meat companies and research units at universities, employing on average 10 employees per organization and 105 euro per employee per year.

This global funding estimate indicates that if 108 euro were not invested in cell-based meat this year, the arrival of cell-based meat on the market would be delayed by one year. And the reverse: if an extra 1 euro were invested this year, the arrival on the market could be advanced with 10-8 year (or 0,3 seconds). However, this might be an overestimation, due to three considerations. First, in the business-as-usual scenario (without your extra funding), it is possible that new inventions or scientific breakthroughs are discovered that would make the current research efforts obsolete by accelerating research. Perhaps over ten years other people will have invented new computing technologies that allow to do all the previous ten year research in cell-based meat within only one year. Hence, with some non-zero probability, a delay of one year of extra funding could be caught up in the future anyway. Second, with a small probability, it is also possible that there is no room for more funding for research: one extra euro of funding could simply be wasted (e.g. by inventing the same thing twice) or one extra researcher could be bored and become superfluous. Third, it is possible that extra funding results in a partial crowding-out of funding and investments by others. If private investors see that others are strongly increasing funding for cell-based meat, they might decide to invest in other things instead.

Let us assume that the above three considerations combined decrease the overall effectiveness or tractability of research funding with a factor 10. In other words, the probability of research funding being effective to create commercializable cell-based meat is estimated to be 10%. This probability is probably an underestimate (in reality, research funding might be more effective and tractable). It implies that an extra 1 euro investment results in the arrival of cell-based meat on the market 10-9 years (0,03 seconds) sooner instead of 10-8 years. This acceleration by 10-9 years is likely an underestimate.

We do not only have to take into consideration the effectiveness of research to create cell-based meat, but also the effectiveness of cell-based meat to eliminate animal farming. Once cell-based meat enters the market, how likely is it to decrease or eliminate animal farming? I assume that the probability that cell-based meat will eliminate animal-based meat and animal farming, is 1/10 (or cell-based meat is guaranteed to take 10% of the meat market in the future). This is likely an underestimate as well.

The above estimates measure the scale (1011 animals used per year), the solvability (1/10 probability of eliminating animal farming) and neglectedness (10-9 years faster elimination per extra euro funding). Now the number of animals spared per extra euro donated to cell-based meat R&D can be calculated as the product of scale, solvability and neglectedness: 1011x10-1x10-9=10. This means one euro extra funding spares 10 vertebrate land animals. Including captured and aquaculture fish (also fish used for fish meal for farm animals), the number becomes an order 10 higher: 100 vertebrate animals saved (i.e. not being killed) per euro. This, again, is based on very conservative (lowest) estimates.

As sparing 1 farm animal corresponds with reducing 0,1 ton CO2e, this one euro funding also means a reduction of 1 ton CO2e, one order of magnitude (a factor 10) lower than the emission by an average human in one year. Used as carbon offsetting, cell-based meat R&D has a price of 1 euro per ton CO2e averted. This is much lower than most other carbon offsetting mechanisms. And it is likely an overestimation (given the above conservative estimates): the real price of carbon offsetting by cell-based meat R&D could be even cheaper.

Note: the basic (in my opinion realistic) assumption in the above calculation is that other people invest in cell-based meat R&D anyway, and that in the business-as-usual scenario (where you do not fund anything) no other strategy (technology, intervention, vegan outreach campaign,…) will be able (even with more funding) to abolish animal farming before cell-based meat enters the market at competitive prices. Suppose cell-based meat arrives within a few decades and eliminates animal farming in say 50 years, whereas another, next best strategy would eliminate animal farming in 100 years. Suppose that this other strategy was less costly, for example requiring only 10 million euro funding per year over a period of 100 years to abolish animal farming, whereas cell-based meat would require 100 million euro funding over 50 years. And suppose that other strategy was more neglected, for example receiving only 10 million euro funding per year, compared to 100 million for cell-based meat. Even then, extra funding for that other strategy would not be effective when it is impossible to speed it up such that it will eliminate animal farming within 50 years. When that other strategy takes more than 50 years anyway, it will become obsolete anyway in the business-as-usual scenario where cell-based meat arrives earlier and eliminates animal farming earlier. A global coordination such that all cell-based meat funding goes to that other, less costly strategy, is not effective (not so feasible). Hence, the most effective thing to do for us, is to accelerate that cell-based meat research, such that it enters the market one year earlier. That saves an extra year of animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions. If other strategies received more funding, there is a likelihood that they make cell-based meat obsolete, and this consideration is included in the estimated 10% probability of cell-based meat eliminating animal farming.

The above is a conservative, low estimate of the impact of cell-based meat R&D. A higher estimate can be obtained as follows. Suppose it takes 102 years of research at 108 euro of funding per year before cell-based meat becomes competitive with animal-based meat. Suppose 90% of the funding are investments that will eventually be payed back by consumers who buy cell-based meat. The remaining 10% has no return on investment and hence counts as real costs. Hence, the amount of funding costs is 107 euro per year. Suppose without cell-based meat, humans will use farm animals for another 10.000 years at 1011 animals per year. The probability that increased research funding is effective to create cell-based meat (i.e. funding research has negligible crowding-out of investments or negligible risks of becoming superfluous) is again 10-1, and the probability that cell-based meat, once it enters the market, will eliminate animal farming is also 10-1, so the total probability of extra funding being effective is 10-2. In this scenario, contributing 1 euro of funding has an impact of 104 years times 1011 animals per year times 10-2 probability divided by 102 years times 107 euro per year, which equals 104 vertebrate land animals spared per euro. This sparing of farm animals is again accompanied by avoided greenhouse gas emissions, but most of those avoided emissions would have happened in the far future. Considering only the short term emission reduction for a time period of 10 years, this again comes down to a carbon offsetting price of around 1 euro per ton CO2e averted. However, this calculation of the high estimate also allows us to take into account the carbon opportunity costs of animal farming. Eliminating animal farming will free up land for spontaneous reforestation. As forests are a carbon sink, this results in a one time sequestration of huge amounts of carbon out of the athmosphere. This carbon sequestration potential of animal-free agriculture is roughly an order 10 times higher than the greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential of animal-free agriculture. This results in roughly 10 ton CO2e carbon offsetting per 1 euro funding (i.e. a very low carbon offsetting price of around 0,1 euro per ton CO2e averted).

Note that the neglectedness is important. Consider for example investments in plant-based meat, which is an order of magnitude larger than investments in cell-based meat, i.e. 10 times less neglected. Suppose plant-based meat also has a probability of 10% of eliminating the animal-meat market (or reducing animal farming by 10%). Then the effectiveness of investments in plant-based meat is an order of magnitude lower than the investments in cell-based meat. Of course, both plant-based and cell-based meat can mutually reinforce each other (i.e. they can be complementary instead substitutable strategies), and from a risk perspective, it is useful to invest in a diverse portfolio of strategies.

Vegan advocacy campaigns calculations

The above impact estimates of cell-based meat R&D can be compared to other measures to reduce animal farming.

Animal Charity Evaluators estimates a cost-effectiveness of around 10 farm animals spared per euro donated to its top recommended charities. This is the same order of magnitude as the lowest estimate of cell-based meat R&D.

An online vegan challenge campaign (where people pledge to eat more vegan for three weeks), has a cost-effectiveness of roughly 100 portions of meat spared per euro invested. At 10 portions per farm animal, this comes down to 10 spared animals per euro.

Vegan outreach leafletting has an estimated impact of 1 animal spared per euro. I did a personal leafletting study (at the Belgian animal rights organization Bite Back) whereby the leaflets included a survey that asks questions about the reduced consumption of animal products due to the leaflet. Based only on the responses of non-vegans who answered that they reduced their animal product consumption, it requires roughly 1000 leaflets for one equivalent conversion to veganism. This was measured in vegan-equivalents, i.e. in terms of the equivalent reduction of the number of animals used. For example, two meat-eaters who reduce their consumption by 50% count as one vegan. Assume that a respondent remains vegan or sticks to his reduced animal product consumption for 10 years. One vegan-equivalent spares around 10 farm animals per year and one leaflet costs 0,1 euro. That means a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared animal per euro (i.e 10 animals per vegan year times 10 years divided by 1000 leaflets times 0,1 euro per leaflet). This is in the same order of magnitude of other cost-effectiveness estimates of leafletting.

Vegan education (giving presentations about veganism) also has a cost-effectiveness of 1 spared farm animal per euro: 10 participants of a lecture times 1% probability of a participant becoming vegan (based on a small personal study that surveys high school students who participated my vegan education lectures) times 10 years of remaining vegan times 10 animals spared per vegan year divided by 10 euro costs per lecture (if I were to be paid an hourly wage of 10 euro).

We can also estimate the overall cost-effectiveness of animal advocacy campaigns. The US population has an order of magnitude 108 people. Suppose meat consumption is decreased by 10% due to people becoming reducetarians, vegetarians or vegans. Suppose 10% of this reduction is due to animal advocacy campaigning. Then the number of US vegan-equivalents for animal welfare reasons is 106. The two largest animal advocacy organizations (HSUS and Peta) have a yearly budget of 108 euro. If their campaigns caused the reduction in meat consumption, we get a cost-effectiveness of 0,1 farm animals spared per euro donated to those animal charities (106 vegans times 10 animals spared per vegan per year divided by 108 euro funding per year). This means that according to the most conservative (lowest) estimate, cell-based meat R&D is about 100 times more effective than average animal advocacy.

As I do not expect that the traditional vegan outreach campaigns are more likely to eliminate animal farming sooner than cell-based meat in a business-as-usual scenario, a high estimate calculation similar to the cell-based meat high estimate is not possible.

I also estimated the required costs of direct payments to meat eaters to become vegan. Assuming linear demand curves of animal products for an average non-vegan in a high-income country, I calculated the consumer surplus of consuming animal products. The order of magnitude is 1000 euros per year, so on average, a person is willing to go vegan when being payd 1000 euro. Using direct consumer payments as a vegan advocacy measure, only 0,01 farm animals would be spared per euro costs.

The case for cell-based, clean meat R&D can be compared to the case for clean energy R&D, as argued here. Clean energy R&D funding is estimated to be more effective than e.g. regulatory climate measures, cutting fossil fuel subsidies and environmental behavioral change campaigns. The latter are analogous to animal farming regulations, cutting animal farming subsidies and vegan consumption campaigns.

A question of timing

The above cost-effectiveness estimate of cell-based meat R&D crucially depends on the timing of the funding. In the past, research was not tractable. Suppose one would have funded cell-based meat research 100 years ago. At that premature level of scientific knowledge and computing power, not much progress would have been made. Later scientific breakthroughs in other areas than cell-based meat, such as computer sciences, engineering and medicine, make it possible to speed up the R&D of cell-based meat. With these new inventions, the decades of early research in cell-based meat could have been done in only a few years. Those decades of early research are basically obsolete: with or without that premature research 100 years ago, our current level of cell-based meat technology and knowledge would be equally high. In contrast with 100 years ago, cell-based meat research is currently very tractable: it becomes unlikely that the current years of research are completely obsolete.

We can also expect that in the future, cell-based meat becomes less neglected. That means, if we wait another 100 years, all of the important investments and research will have already been done, which means extra funding becomes futile.

The next few decades offer a window of opportunity for cell-based meat R&D: it is no longer intractable and not yet unneglected.

Conclusion

Cell-based meat research and development is at least 10 times more cost-effective than the most effective traditional vegan outreach campaigns and at least 100 times more cost-effective than average animal advocacy and vegan campaigning. One euro funding for cell-based meat R&D could spare the lives of more than 10 farm animals, save the lives of more than 100 vertebrate animals and avoid more than 1 ton CO2-equivalent emissions. That makes cell-based meat R&D probably the most effective measure to reduce anthropogenic animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions.

You can support cell-based meat R&D by donating to New Harvest.

For a further discussion, including another estimate of the cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat (with a roughly same result but a different method), see the comments section here.

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Veganmodernism: the end of veganism?

For an online presentation, see here.

Just like the environmental movement gave birth to ecomodernism, the vegan movement can give birth to veganmodernism. Ecomodernism focuses on technological innovations (e.g. clean energy, genetically modified organisms,…) to decrease our environmental impact, rather than consumer behavioral change campaigns or corporate pressure campaigns to persuade consumers and producers to go green. Veganmodernism does the same: instead of persuading consumers to go vegan, it focuses on the development of animal-free versions of animal products, such as cultivated (cell-based) meat, leather and milk without cows, and egg-proteins without chickens.

Veganmodernism focuses in particular on research and development of cell-based meat technologies. This is probably one of the most effective things we can do in the short term (e.g. the next two decades) to make the world better.

Focus on big problems

Veganmodernism helps to solve some of the biggest problems.

  1. Anthropogenic suffering. Most anthropogenic (human-caused) suffering is due to meat production (animal farming and fishing). The number of humans killed is much smaller than the number of farm animals killed for meat. The number of humans in extreme poverty is much smaller than the number of farm animals who are likely to have net negative welfare levels. The number of animals kept in captivity for experimentation, fur production or entertainment is much smaller than the number of farm animals. The number of animals used for meat is larger than the number of animals used for eggs and dairy.
  2. Climate change. Combining the greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon opportunity costs, animal farming is probably the human activity with the largest climate impact. Hence, the replacement of animal meat by animal-free (cell-based) meat is a very effective climate measure.
  3. Pandemics. Animal farming is one of the leading causes of infectious zoonotic diseases that could become pandemics (e.g. bird flu, swine flu, coronaviruses,…)

Avoiding many problems

Veganmodernism avoids or attenuates many problems and discussions (see also here and here).

  1. Avoiding the meat-eater problem. In most cases, economic development and saving human lives causes increased meat consumption and hence increased animal suffering and environmental impact. Animal farming increases human health risks (e.g. infectious zoonotic diseases), uses a lot of resources and contributes to climate change. Hence, replacing animal products with cheaper, healthier and cleaner alternatives improves the economic welfare and health of humans without generating extra animal suffering and environmental impact.
  2. Avoiding the welfarist-abolitionist debate. Welfarist animal charities and advocates want to improve the living conditions of farm animals, whereas abolitionists want to eliminate animal farming. The abolitionists strongly value animal rights such as the right not to be used as merely a means, and this is not compatible with animal farming. These abolitionists criticize welfarists, claiming that it is difficult to know what improves the welfare of farm animals, that most proposals of welfare improvements can have negative side-effects (e.g. creating extra animal health risks or environmental impacts) and that welfare improvements can increase meat consumption (because they soothe the conscience of consumers) and hence the number of animals being used and killed. The production of cell-based meat avoids using animals and hence avoids animal rights violations and welfarist negative side-effects. The meat is produced without the sentient animals. Cell-based meat promotion is compatible with both utilitarian (welfarist) animal welfare and deontological (abolitionist) animal rights views.
  3. Avoiding backfire effects. In contrast with corporate pressure campaigns, developments of animal-free products is not expected to provoke a lot of backlash from the animal industry. For example, after a release of undercover investigations of factory farms, the animal industry pushes back by advertising for more meat consumption. However, even some meat processing companies are investing in plant-based and cell-based meats, and even some researchers in animal production who have strong ties with the animal industry, are doing research in cell-based meat. None of those people and companies were supporting veganism.
  4. Avoiding psychological and sociological uncertainties. Psychologists are studying what causes people to change their behavior. Sociologists are studying what causes societies to change their cultural norms (values and systems). They do research on nudging (changing the choice environment such that people are automatically inclined to perform more of the preferred behavior), motivational interviewing, persuasion, effective communication, social protest movements,… But these areas of research are still full of uncertainties, and silver bullets or simple effective solutions have still not been found and progress is very slow. When cheap, high quality animal-free products are available and marketed by competitive firms, no knowledge about behavioral change (e.g. nudging) and cultural change (e.g. effective protest movements) is necessary. People can still eat the same products and meals, only the production processes differ (the new processes exclude the use of animals).
  5. Attenuating the wild animal suffering problem and predation problem. Decreasing animal farming could free agricultural land for reforestation. More nature also means more wild animals, and this can increase wild animal suffering. However, more forests also means more carbon capture and storage, hence less climate change and less animal suffering from climate change. In this sense, animal-free agriculture is one of the most effective strategies to decrease climate change. But in the long run, cell-based meat can also be part of the solution to the predation problem: carnivorous predator animals can eat animal-free meat instead of animal meat. Solving the predation problem could drastically decrease wild animal suffering.

Plant-based versus cell-based meat

To eliminate the market for animal meat, there are four approaches. There are two markets: for animal products and animal-free alternatives. Each market has two sides: supply and demand. Hence, we can target either the demand side or the supply side, by changing respectively the behavior of individual consumers or the choices of food producers. For each target, we can apply either push or pull strategies: making animal products less attractive (pushing the economy away from the animal product market) or making animal-free foods more attractive (pulling the economy towards the animal-free alternatives market). Of the four possible market strategies, I argued that the supply side pull strategy has the best prospects, because the other three have shown poor track records over the past decades.

The supply side pull strategy consists in the development of plant-based and cell-based meat. Based on the Importance-Tractability-Neglectedness (ITN) framework, I will argue that priority should be given to research and development of cell-based meat above plant-based meat (elsewhere, I applied the same ITN-framework to argue that charities that support cell-based and plant-based meat developments are highly effective; here I argue why in particular cell-based meat could be prioritized).

Considering importance or scale, cell-based meat is expected to have a bigger market than plant-based meat. Not only humans can eat cell-based meat, but cell-based meat can also be beneficial for carnivorous animals under human care (e.g. pets and rescued wildlife animals), and in the long run other wild animals. There are many predators in nature. People can doubt whether plant-based meat is healthy (sufficiently high in quality) for e.g. cats, but cell-based meat is the same product as animal-based meat and hence has the same food quality for carnivorous animals as animal-based meat.

Considering neglectedness, in 2019 there were 55 cultivated meat and seafood industry startups globally, receiving $77 million of venture capital investments. In contrast, in 2019, in the US alone there were 143 plant-based meat, dairy and eggs companies, receiving $460 million of venture capital investments. There are no cell-based meat retail sales and no cell-based meat companies on the stock market. In contrast, in the US alone, plant-based meat retail sales were $900 million in 2019, and the sector received $290 million in net new public share offerings. Hence, cell-based meat has a much smaller industry than plant-based meat, which means it is more neglected. As a comparison, in the US, animal and environmental charities received almost $12 billion donations in 2018. This is much more than the global venture capital investments in cell-based meat. Even the combined donations to the two largest US animal charities (the Humane Society and Peta) is more than $100 million. As processed cell-based meat at competitive retail prices is not expected on the market within 10 years, and unprocessed (whole tissue) cell-based meat is not expected on the market within 20 or 30 years, we can expect that cell-based meat will remain relatively neglected the next two decades.

Cell-based meat research is still in its infancy, requiring a lot of fundamental innovative research. This kind of research is undersupplied in a competitive free market, due to a market failure (knowledge about cell-based meat production processes has the characteristics of a public good). Therefore, cell-based meat is expected to have higher long-run impact research opportunities compared to plant-based meat for the coming years.

Due to the relative neglectedness, the value of information of the potential cell-based meat impact is relatively high. We do not yet have a lot of information about the potential impact of cell-based meat, e.g. how fast the production costs will decrease, how fast bottle-necks will be solved, how fast consumers will accept it, how fast it will resemble animal-based meat. From all four market strategies (the abovementioned push and pull, demand and supply strategies), the effectiveness of a supply side pull strategy remains most uncertain. Investing in cell-based meat technologies now allows us to quickly gain new valuable information about the effectiveness of cell-based meat with regard to eliminating animal farming.

Considering tractability or solvability, research and development of new technologies has a long track record of high impact. This also goes for new food and bio-engineering technologies. Hence, it is very likely that extra funding for cell-based meat R&D will be productive. This can be contrasted with traditional veganism strategies that primarily focus on behavioral change. It is unlikely that the next two decades will generate a lot of new knowledge about effective psychological persuasion strategies to persuade people to go vegan. Effective communication or changing the choice architecture (nudging) have limited impact and no good track record of improvements. Scientific evidence about the effectiveness of e.g. leafleting or online ads remains very limited, with small effect sizes and a lot of statistically insignificant results.

The tractability of cell-based meat R&D is not lower than plant-based meat R&D. It is unlikely that plant-based meat can replace all kinds of unprocessed meats and seafood. With cell-based meat, on the other hand, meat eaters can still eat their preferred ribs, beef stew, pork tenderloins and bacon, all cell-based. Hence, it can be expected that cell-based meat is more appealing to traditional meat eaters than plant-based meat. Traditional meat eaters are conservative in the sense that they are reluctant to change their behavior or identity. Hence, messages such as “eating vegan” (i.e. changing behavior) and “going/becoming vegan” (i.e. changing identity) are less effective for them. With cell-based meat, they can eat the same product, only the production process is different: cell-based meat requires cells, animal-based meat requires whole animals. As the product is exactly the same, no behavioral change (change in consumption choices) is required. Furthermore, as cell-based meat is the same product as animal-based meat, it can have the same name. The difference between cell-based and animal-based meat is the production process (one involving cells, the other animals), but the name of a non-trademarked product category such as ‘meat’ or ‘milk’ does not depend on the production process.

I expect that cell-based meat is more limited in the number of possible cost-effective production technologies than plant-based meat (i.e. there are more different ways to produce plant-based meats than cell-based meat), and that cell-based meat production will be more technology intensive than plant-based meat production (i.e. cell-based meat is more high-tech than plant-based meat). That means cell-based meat production technologies are more susceptible to patenting and market monopoly power. To avoid problems with market monopolies and intellectual property rights, open source research becomes more important. This kind of research requires more independent funding instead of private investments. Both cell-based and plant-based meat will benefit from private (venture capital) investors who invest in start-ups, but for the short term I expect that cell-based meat will also be relatively more benefited from donors (governments, philanthropists, animal advocates) who finance fundamental open source research in cell-based meat technologies. Plant-based meat will benefit less from philanthropic donor funding, due to the already high levels of private investments and the lower risks of market monopoly powers related to intellectual property rights.

The end of veganism?

As mentioned above, cell-based meat allows for traditional meat eaters to eat the same products that they used to eat, but without using animals. Combined with animal-free dairy, eggs, leather, wool and other products that used to be derived from animals, veganism becomes redundant. No behavioral or identity change are required. Messages like “eat vegan” and “go vegan” as well as vegan cookbooks, vegan cooking workshops, vegan potlucks, vegan recipes, vegan festivals and vegan outreach become superfluous.

The advent of the mass-produced cars in the 1920’s resulted in an almost complete elimination of the use of draft horses for carriage within four decades. In the film industry, real animals (e.g. a real orang-oetan in the 1978 movie Every Which Way but Loose with Clint Eastwood) are replaced by computer animated animals (e.g. a CGI-created dog in the 2020 movie The Call of the Wild with Harrison Ford). Plenty of other examples (messenger pigeons, whale oil,…) demonstrate that new technologies replaced the use of many animals, without much animal activist pressure campaigns or consumerist behavioral change campaigns. These campaigns became obsolete. When cell-based meat enters the market, the same is likely to happen for vegan consumer and corporate outreach campaigns. Instead of vegan organizations, cell-based meat companies will do the marketing for animal-free products.

In fact, all of this means that we can eliminate animal farming, without the need of the word ‘veganism’. People do not have to call themselves ‘vegan’, traditional meat eaters do not have to know what veganism is. Compare it with the hypothetical ‘automobilism’, the ideology that we should not use horses for transport and use horse-free vehicles such as cars instead. One could have started ‘go auto’ or ‘drive auto’ campaigns to persuade people to stop using horses. One could do research on the most effective, convincing strategies that persuade people to go auto. One could do pressure campaigns targeting draft horse companies and horse breeders. One could inform the public about all the problems with draft horses: animal suffering (exhaustion, whipping, captivity), pollution (horse manure in the streets), inefficient use of resources (land area for horse feed),… But all of this would have become superfluous when the efficiency and usability of cars increased and their prices dropped drastically due to new car mass production technologies (e.g. Ford’s Model T). Just like an automobilism ideology became unnecessary, a veganism ideology can become unnecessary when cheap, high quality cell-based meat enters the market and outcompetes animal-based meats due to its better production process.

Here we can draw again the analogy between veganmodernism and ecomodernism. The traditional environmental movement is reluctant towards ecomodernism, because ecomodernism makes traditional environmentalist value systems such as ‘localism’ (e.g. deglobalization, degrowth, bioregionalism, anticorporation, small scale production) and ‘naturalism’ (e.g. organic agriculture, non-synthetic products, low-tech production) obsolete.[1] Ecomodernism focuses on high-tech solutions to decrease our environmental impact, instead of a drastic behavioral change (austerity). In the past, new technologies allowed for fast and drastic reductions in environmental impact (e.g. LED-lights that use renewable and nuclear power), which could not be achieved by less effective austerity campaigns.

Veganmodernism  and cell-based meat (and dairy, eggs, leather,…) could be the final strategy for meat abolition, could be the end of animal farming, but could in a sense also be the end of veganism in the animal rights movement, just like ecomodernism could mean the end of localism and naturalism in the environmental movement.

Hence, animal rights activists and advocates can shift their strategies and tactics: instead of spending time and money doing traditional veganism behavioral change and corporate pressure campaigns, they can look for opportunities to raise, earn and donate more money to an organization like New Harvest, that supports open source research and development of new cell-based meat technologies. It could be the case that, just like this analysis for effective climate change policies, clean meat R&D is more effective than e.g. a meat tax or cutting livestock subsidies (see the table of climate policies ranked according to a combined importance, neglectedness and tractability score, with clean energy R&D at the top, carbon taxes at position 5 and cutting fossil fuel subsidies at 9).

Even if vegan advocacy and corporate pressure campaigns become obsolete when all animal products are replaced by the same products that do not use animals in the production processes, campaigning for antispeciesism and moral circle expansion towards all sentient beings remains relevant. In fact, when humans no longer use animals for food or clothing, moral circle expansion becomes easier, because humans will have less cognitive dissonance when they no longer use animals.


[1] There is a crucial difference between the localist and naturalist value systems in the environmental movement, and the veganist value system in the animal rights movement. Localism and naturalism can be seriously harmful or counterproductive, whereas veganism is not counterproductive.

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