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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2 reacties op Veganmodernism: the end of veganism?

  1. Pingback: The extreme cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

  2. Pingback: Opposing cell-based meat: a serious irrationality in the animal rights movement | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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