After a long reflection, here are my thoughts on how to most effectively decrease or end the biggest kind of human-caused suffering: animal farming (and fishing). I argue that the best strategy for animal rights advocates to abolish meat, is supporting open access scientific research and development of cellular agriculture.
How can we eliminate the animal product market? There are two interlinked markets: for animal products and animal-free alternatives. We need to shift the system from the market of animal products to the market of animal-free products, either by pushing the system away from the first market, or pulling it towards the second market. Like pulling on one side of a rope is more effective than pushing on the other side, I will argue that a pulling strategy is more effective than a pushing strategy.
Both markets have a demand side of consumers and a supply side of producers. Hence, we can distinguish four (two by two) strategies. The two push strategies influence the animal product market: they make animal products less attractive, either by decreasing demand (a leftward shift of the demand curve) or increasing production costs (an upward shift of the supply curve). The pull strategies make animal-free products more attractive, either by increasing its demand (a rightward shift of the demand curve) or decreasing its production costs (a downward shift of the supply curve). Hence, we can analyze the effectiveness of these two strategies at the two market sides.
Demand side strategies
Let’s start with the demand side. Many animal advocates focus on individual behavior change with consumerist vegan and vegetarian outreach campaigns. Despite all the outreach campaigns of the past five decades of activism, the number of vegetarians and vegans did not increase very much and stays below 10% of the population.
The demand side push strategy consists of presenting moral arguments against animal production, informing people about the horrors of animal farming, showing undercover investigations of factory farming, producing documentaries or talking about human health costs and environmental problems of animal products. This strategy often faces a pushback from the animal industry: they increase their marketing campaigns to counteract the negative information spread by animal rights activists. It becomes a kind of arm-wrestling: the harder you push, the harder the opponent pushes back. At best, the strategy makes animal products a bit more expensive, because the industry needs to pay for its extra marketing campaigns, and this can decrease the demand a little.
The demand side pull strategy consists in making veganism more attractive by organizing vegan cooking workshops and vegan community events, distributing vegan meal recipes or letting people taste traditional vegan products. This behavior change strategy has its limits as well, because it gives the impression that eating vegan requires a change in behavior (having to learn new things such as vegan recipes, making new choices) and a change in identity (considering oneself as a vegan, adopting a new, vegan ideology). People are reluctant to change their behavior and identity, so this pull strategy was not sufficient to convince the broad public.
Supply side strategies
Moving towards the supply side, animal rights organizations did some effective campaigns to change the system. The supply side push strategy consists in attacking the industry. Blockades, supply chain disruptions, governmental regulation, meat taxation, are all examples to make the production of animal products more costly (shifting the supply curve of animal products upwards). This can be moderately effective in two situations: to prevent further expansion of the industry and to prohibit a part of the industry.
First, the further expansion of the industry can be prevented, for example by a public non-violent direct action campaign that prevents the construction of a new slaughterhouse in a neighborhood. This can be effective, because preventing something that does not yet exist is easier than breaking down something that already exists and already has strong vested interests. However, the effectiveness is limited, because as long as demand is high, the slaughterhouse can be built elsewhere. At best, the strategy makes animal products a bit more expensive, because the industry needs to build its infrastructure at more expensive places.
Second, with the help of government regulation, a part of the industry can be prohibited. For example, animal rights organizations were successful in officially banning sports that involved animal cruelty and circuses that used wild animals in many countries. This can be effective, because influencing a (local or national) government is easier than directly attacking the industry. However, the effectiveness is limited, because the scope of the problem is relatively small: there were fewer wild animals in all circuses combined than livestock animals on a single, large factory farm.
The supply side push strategy works on the market for animal products and therefore also faces a pushback effect from the industry, reducing the overall effectiveness. In general, the past five decades did not show many big results with this strategy.
That leaves us with one final strategy, that is not much attempted yet for animal farming: the supply side pull strategy, that works on the market of animal-free alternatives. Basically, it comes down to developing new food technologies, such as cellular agriculture that can produce cell-based meat. It decreases the production costs of animal-free products that are equal or better in quality than animal products. This final strategy can be very effective.
New technologies that replaced animals
In the past, we have seen several examples of animals being replaced by new technologies, often without much resistance (almost no pushback from the industry or from adversarial government legislators) and even without animal rights campaigning. Some examples:
- draft horses for carriage were replaced by cars,
- oxen for plowing were replaced by tractors,
- whale oil was replaced by kerosene,
- messenger pigeons were replaced by telephones and telegraphs,
- bird feather pens were replaced by steel pens,
- wool was largely replaced by synthetic fibers such as nylon (this is one of the most important reasons why sheep agriculture in the US declined by almost 90%),
- beeswax for candles was replaced by light bulbs,
- pig and cow insulin for diabetes patients was replaced by biosynthetic human insulin from recombinant-DNA yeast,
- monoclinal antibodies from animals were replaced by antibodies from cultured cells,
- rabbit skin tests were replaced by cultured human skin cells (an example of a replacement of animal experiments by animal-free alternatives),
- movie animals are being replaced more and more by CGI digital animals.
Note that in many of those examples, a sector that used thousands or millions of animals was completely or almost completely abolished within only a few decades. The general reason behind these drastic transitions is that the animal-free new technologies were simply better in terms of quality, usability, reliability and production costs, such that market forces were sufficient to shift the economy. Only limited pressure from the public or the government was needed.
We can expect that gradually all animal technologies will be replaced by animal-free technologies. This can be understood by looking at the technology space: the abstract space of all physically possible technologies that we could ever invent. This is a huge space, and only a small island in this space consist of technologies that use animals. At this moment, animal farming is the technology that uses the most animals. Animal farming is on the island of animal technologies.
Our human history can be understood as an exploration of technology space. With our first technological inventions, we were dropped in technology space. Because we met a lot of animals in our daily lives, as it happens, we landed close to the island of animal technologies. Therefore, we explored this island and hence a large part of our first technological inventions involved animals. That is why we started to use more and more animals, inventing new ways to use them. But as we explore technology space further, we are expanding the scope far beyond the small island of animal technologies. With this exploration, the probability that we discover animal-free technologies that are in all aspects better than animal technologies, increases.
New food technologies allow for the production of animal-free foods that become better in all aspects (tastier, safer, healthier, cheaper, environmentally friendlier,…) than animal foods. Hence, the final strategy of pulling the supply side towards animal-free food production, is likely to be very effective. Especially the replacement of animal meat (slaughtered meat) with animal-free meat is important. When it comes to animal-free meat, we can make a distinction between plant-based meat and cell-based meat. A prospective timeline estimates that this decade, we will see large improvements in new plant-based versions of processed animal products such as burgers and sausages. In the 2030’s, we will see processed cell-based meat products, animal-free dairy and eggs and pet food on the market. And by 2050, unprocessed, whole tissue cell-based meat is expected to enter the market.
Animal rights activists can help speed up this process of animal-free meat entering the market, by supporting research and development, assisting the marketing and legislative process, and influencing the distribution networks and supply chains for the new food technologies. Two organizations are of prime importance in this area: the Good Food Institute and New Harvest.
The case for cell-based meat support
When choosing between supporting R&D of plant-based meat versus cell-based meat, the latter could be more effective. First of all, new start-up companies are already bringing new plant-based meats to the market, backed by large investors (see for example the very successful stock market launch of Beyond Meat in 2019). This means there is already a lot of investment in this area of plant-based meats. Cell-based meat is not yet on the market and there are not yet cell-based meat companies selling shares on the stock market or marketing cell-based meats. Hence cell-based meat is more benefitted by extra support that enhances market introduction.
Second, the timeline to influence the developments of new plant-based meat is short: they are expected to capture a large market share of the meat sector already this decade. Whole tissue cell-based meat, on the other hand, is expected to enter the market over a few decades. When a solution is further away in the future, efforts to shorten the timeline become more important. When a solution takes ten times longer to develop, speeding up developments with 1% has ten times more future impact (as explained with a graph here).
Third, the demand of plant-based meat is likely more limited. It might remain difficult to persuade die-hard meat-eaters to switch to plant-based alternatives, because those alternatives can only imitate processed animal meat. Whole tissue cell-based meat, on the other hand, would taste and feel just like unprocessed animal meat. If cell-based meat becomes indistinguishable from animal meat, but cheaper than animal meat, it is likely to attract more meat-eaters. Furthermore, cell-based meat is likely more appropriate for non-human carnivorous consumers as well, such as pets and animals in wildlife rescue centers. In theory, in the far future, demand for cell-based meat could extend to all carnivorous wild animals.
Fourth, private companies are already investing in applied R&D for plant-based meat, whereas cell-based meat still requires much more initial or fundamental R&D that is more neglected by private companies. Hence, donors have more opportunities for financially supporting this more fundamental research.
Fifth, there is a risk that cell-based meat awaits the same fate as GMOs. GMOs can improve the food system, but they received a public backlash, largely due to GMOs becoming associated with corporate secrecy and large corporations controlling intellectual property. When a large corporation would appropriate all intellectual property for the production of cell-based meat, it gains a monopoly power, which means that cell-based meat will be sold at high prices and other companies cannot easily develop new cell-based meats. This reduces supply and demand of cell-based meats. Especially cell-based meat technologies are vulnerable for patenting. To avoid patenting of cell-based meat by large corporations as much as possible, we need to increase support for open access research into cellular agriculture as much as possible. That is why an organization like New Harvest is so important.
As cell-based meat will be better in all aspects than animal meat, it is likely that it can replace animal meat just like the ten technology examples given above replaced animals. Nevertheless, it is possible to give counterexamples of better technologies that were not able to replace worse technologies. The best counterexample is probably bottled water: tap water is equally healthy but more than hundred times cheaper and better for the environment, as well as easier in use (no need to buy and carry heavy bottles from a shop). Still, a lot of consumers buy a lot of bottled water. The crucial question is whether cell-based meat is comparable to tap water, or rather to a cheaper and higher quality bottled water. The reason why people still buy bottled water, is mostly marketing based. Bottled water is more marketed than tap water, because companies want to sell it. We can expect that companies selling cell-based meat will advertise their cell-based meat. So cell-based meat should rather be compared with cheaper and higher quality bottled water than with tap water. And when cell-based meat is better for public health and the environment, governments can more easily prohibit animal meat, just like governments can easily prohibit the most environmentally destructive type of bottled water packaging.
Conclusion: towards veganmodernism
In the past, animal rights advocates tried several strategies to decrease or end the biggest kind of human-caused suffering, namely animal farming. All of them failed so far, but one strategy is not yet attempted much: a supply side pull strategy towards animal-free food production. Within this strategy, the most effective tactic could be the financial support for open access scientific research and development of cell-based meat. Hence, animal rights activists and advocates can shift their strategies and tactics: instead of spending time and money doing traditional behavioral change and corporate pressure campaigns, they can look for opportunities to raise, earn and donate more money to an organization like New Harvest. This implies the animal rights movement should shift more towards veganmodernism, where technology is the solution, just like the environmental movement gave birth to ecomodernism.