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

  1. karen338 zegt:

    I have contributed an opinion about cellular meat to the Animal Advocates Speak Out page of the Clean Meat Hoax website. I have expressed my ambivalence, but generally speaking, I would support cellular meat if it reduced, preferably eliminated, the birth of animals into the food production system. Of the many points made in this essay, one point critiques the argument that not only animal agriculture must be eliminated, but the entire Capitalist system must be dismantled. This essay observes that linking a call to eliminate Capitalism with campaigns to eliminate animal agriculture adds additional burdens to the effort to help animals by eliminating animal agriculture. I agree. It does not seem likely that attaching a demand to end Capitalism with the effort to eliminate the use of animals in food production will have any influence at all. People can make choices about what/whom they purchase and consume; they can feel and be empowered as customers to influence the economic system. But abolishing Capitalism is way beyond what most people, including myself, can do or even envision in concrete terms. Capitalism isn’t only about the Big Bad Corporations inflicting a terrible system upon innocent consumers. It’s about consumers desiring the zillions of products that Capitalism makes available to them. So I tend to agree with the argument that we should use the Capitalist system to the advantage of animals and that this approach is not in vain. Thank you! — Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns (USA)

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