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In Vitro Meat, Animals and the Environment

"Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" --
In Vitro Meat, Animals and the Environment
Norm Phelps

December 2012

In just a few years, in vitro meat--actual chicken flesh, ham, and beef grown in a laboratory from cloned cells rather than cut from the dead body of a slaughtered animal--may be on the shelves of supermarkets and the tables of restaurants. Press reports indicate that the basic techniques for growing meat in a laboratory rather than on an animal already exist and that researchers have turned their attention to secondary technical problems relating to the texture and color of the meat and the design of an apparatus on which cloned meat can be mass produced cheaply and easily.

And already, before the product even exists in a marketable form, in vitro meat has become controversial within the global animal protection and vegetarian communities. This is not surprising. Throughout history, a vegetarian (or vegan) diet has been the only ethically adequate response to the harms caused by meat eating. The idea that soon this may no longer be the case will take some getting used to.

To understand the potential benefits of in vitro meat (and possibly even in vitro eggs and milk), we have to take a closer look at the actual harms caused by meat eating. These harms, I would suggest, arise from three sources :

Raising animals for their flesh, which in its modern incarnation constitutes a particularly egregious form of animal cruelty (factory farming), contributes to global warming, and pollutes the air, earth, and water.

Killing animals for their flesh, which is the ultimate cruelty and also a serious source of environmental degradation.

Eating the flesh of animals, which if done in excess is harmful to the health of the eater. (I have seen no convincing evidence that for normal, healthy people, a varied diet which includes some animal flesh is harmful to human health--although for people with heart disease and certain other conditions, even small amounts of meat might be harmful.)

The replacement of meat from sentient beings by meat grown on racks in laboratories would eliminate the first two of the three sources of harm caused by eating meat. The third--which strikes me as the least ethically problematic of the three--would not be affected.

But--as the saying goes-- Two out of three ain't bad.  And eliminating the animal cruelty and environmental degradation caused by raising and slaughtering animals for their flesh should be more than adequate reason for animal rights and vegetarian activists to support in vitro meat. We have not been able to persuade the public to stop eating meat, but it may prove far easier to persuade people to eat in vitro meat.

According to public opinion surveys, the number of vegetarians in America has been stagnant for at least a dozen years at 5% of the adult population, with less than half of those (around 2% of the adult population) being vegan.

In many countries, reliable, up-to-date numbers can be hard to come by, but globally, except for countries like India and China that have a long tradition of vegetarianism, the percentage of vegetarians seems generally stuck in single digits.

The strategy of just telling people to stop eating meat isn't working, and there is no reason to think it will work in the future. Abolitionist advocacy must be supplemented by other strategies, of which the promotion of in vitro meat could become one of the most important.

I believe that global warming will soon provide the motivation for governments and corporations to pursue research on in vitro meat much more aggressively than has been the case up to now. When that happens, it won't be long before meat grown in laboratories tastes, chews, and looks like the original and costs less to produce. And that would be something we should all celebrate.

The greatest single advance for animals since they were first enslaved en masse during the Neolithic revolution came not from ethical advocacy, but from technical progress, viz..the invention of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine, which liberated horses, donkeys, mules, oxen, and other animals from slave labor throughout the industrialized world. In vitro meat could have a similar benefit for cows, pigs, sheep and other farmed animals while easing global warming and freeing up resources, including land and water, for use in relieving human hunger worldwide.

Sometimes I think that animal and vegetarian activists have become so used to being ignored and marginalized that we, perhaps unconsciously, begin to think of vegetarianism and animal liberation as a kind of parlor game in which we can indulge our fantasies with complete freedom, unrestrained by reality.

And when this happens, we stop asking ourselves, -- What will do the most good in the real world?" Instead, we start to wonder, -- What would be the most perfect world that we can imagine?

Visions of perfection can be important; they have their place. But they are no substitute for practical steps that might actually reduce animal exploitation and slow global warming. And in the near future, one of those steps may just turn out to be meat grown in a laboratory.

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Norm Phelps is an American animal rights activist and author. His new book, Changing the Game : 'Why Animal Rights Is the Hardest Battle Ever Fought . . . And How We Can Win It' will be published as an ebook in the spring of 2013.

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