Monday, April 21, 2008

Meat Without Suffering

P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has reportedly announced that it will award a million-dollars to anyone who can design a commercially viable method for producing meat from a test-tube by the year 2012. "In-vitro meat production would use animal stem cells that would be placed in a medium to grow and reproduce. The result would mimic flesh and could be cooked and eaten." The New York Times reported on Monday that offering this prize was very controversial within PETA, with one member expressing the view that "as the largest animal rights organization in the world, it's our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat." In this blog post, I want to take up the question of whether the production of "in vitro meat" is objectionable from the point of view of animal rights.

Let me offer an argument that I view as a variation on the position expressed above by the PETA member who viewed PETA's prize as controversial. The goal of the animal rights community (as opposed, for example, to the animal welfare community) is to eliminate the use of animals as resources to be mined (for their milk, eggs, wool, etc.) and killed (for their flesh), all of which use involves tremendous suffering. One way to express opposition to the use of animals is to become a vegan and thus to reduce the aggregate demand for animal use by refusing to subsidize it. By irritating grocers and waiters at restaurants -- not to mention fellow diners -- the vegan serves also as a gadfly, thereby spreading the message that eating meat directly contributes to unfathomable and unjustifiable suffering. If a vegan were to begin to consume in vitro meat (which might be physiologically indistinguishable from "in vivo" meat), then her food choices might become immediately less apparent to those around her. She could order a cheeseburger at a restaurant that stocks in vitro meat, without guilt but also without signaling to her dinner companions that she believes that eating meat represents a morally reprehensible act. Furthermore, she herself might come to view meat as acceptable, having eaten its physiologically identical analogue, so that when a restaurant does not stock in vitro meat, she might feel disinhibited from ordering it.

This latter concern is one that comes up for people I know who say that they eat only organically raised animals and organic milk and cheese. They believe, inaccurately as it turns out, that organic farming gives animals a good life until the moment that they are slaughtered. I regularly see such people order meat dishes in restaurants that do not insist on organic meat, however. In other words, once you allow yourself to eat organic meat, you are likely to eat factory-farmed meat when the organic alternative is not available. Compromise yields more compromise.

I wonder, however, whether a vegan eater of in vitro meat might feel that she has not compromised at all. If no animal lived or suffered or died to produce the burger, then how different is that burger from a flame-grilled soy patty? And if one takes this view, then the line between eating meat that came from a real animal and meat that came from a non-sentient stem cell might remain firm in one's mind. In other words, one must accept the premise that in vitro meat represents a compromise to conclude that such a compromise risks further compromise.

One might respond, of course, that the consumption of any meat imitation -- whether a soy burger or a test-tube-grown beef burger -- supports the false view that the sensation of eating meat is somehow essential to life. I am persuaded, however, that the key to reducing and ultimately ending the injustice of meat production is all about reducing demand, and if in vitro meat succeeds in reducing demand (by providing a truly humane alternative), then the willingness to accept the premises of the animal rights movement will follow. I believe, then, that people rationalize the horrendous practices of meat production because they want to eat meat, milk, etc. (and therefore resist appeals to conscience that would prevent them from doing so). Once they can eat meat without anyone being harmed or slaughtered, they will be free to see animal mining as the injustice that it is.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb


Hamiltwan said...

The two vegan arguments against eating in vitro meat seem to both be about the vegan (as opposed to the animal/food/etc). Both lowering resistance to eating meat from animals (by eating in vitro meat) and failing to be a gadfly are only hurt if the vegan eats the in vitro meat. Regardless of where the meat came from, a vegan could continue to eat meat to both reduce demand and to keep their resistance up (for lack of a better phrase) and act as a gadfly.
It seems to me the argument at PETA shouldn't be about if in vitro meat research should be encouraged, but rather if the individuals who dislike the factory farm system should eat it. Even if both objections are real problems, wouldn't offering in vitro meat to those who may disapprove of animal cruelty but are unwilling to give up meat at least move society in a direction that any PETA member would approve?
(all of this ignoring any "playing god" concerns members might have)

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hamilton makes an excellent point. The arguments I discussed are indeed about the impact on vegans of the availability of in vitro meat, and vegans could -- as a matter of self-discipline -- refrain from eating the in vitro meat and support it only as an alternative for those who are not currently vegan. The problem, though, is that many vegans or would-be vegans might be persuaded to eat the in vitro meat and then find themselves sliding down the slippery slope. Whether this would happen is, of course, an unanswered empirical question, and my inclination is to do as Hamilton suggests -- provide the in vitro meat but recommend that vegans avoid it (just as one might recommend that only heroin addicts use methadone but that everyone else stay away from both substances).

Unknown said...

As a Vegan myself, I would never eat in vitro meat. I don't know a single vegan that would, actually.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek said...

Even if you're wrong that most vegans will be able to resist the slippery slope (though I don't think you are), I still think the number of people who would give up (or significantly cut down on) factory farmed meat if in-vitro meat were widely available would vastly outnumber vegan backsliders.

There is, I guess, the so-called "yuck factor" of eating test tube meat. But once the novelty of it wears off, I don't see this being a lasting problem.

egarber said...

I still think the number of people who would give up (or significantly cut down on) factory farmed meat if in-vitro meat were widely available would vastly outnumber vegan backsliders.

I agree with derek generally. But I think you'd see a massive transition toward this alternative if efficiencies drove down costs -- assuming quality was acceptable, etc. That might require removal of traditional farm subsidies so the two approaches could compete on even terms.

Elaine Vigneault said...

Hi there.

Vegan here.

Two points:
1. Veganism isn't just about being a gadfly. It's about living a life without blood on one's hands, that is, an ethical life. I'd be vegan even if no one ever saw what I ate and even if I had no chance of convincing anyone else to go vegan. I simply can't participate in the extremely cruel animal exploitation that is meat, dairy, and egg production.

On a related note, I don't think I could ever eat in vitro meat because I couldn't be completely sure of its origin. People lie all the time, so I simply couldn't trust a food server when it comes to something that I can't taste the difference.

And on top of that, I'm nearly a life-long vegetarian (since I was 6 years old). It's part of my identity. I have no good reason to go back to eating meat, so there's no reason to think I would or should.

2. The demand for meat is manufactured. Consumers do not naturally desire high quantities of meat. No, Americans are raised to believe meat consumption is normal and natural. We, Americans, learn the four food groups and two are animal products: meat and dairy. We get animal products in our cafeterias a no vegan options. We are told there is a hierarchy in the animal kingdom and that humans rule all other beings and that that is the way it is supposed to be. We, Americans, see McDonald's commercials that are targeted for children and we get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the happy meal and toy.

Marketing manufactures demand.

If we, vegans, continue to view the problem as consumer-centered and ignore the manufacturing of demand, we will never succeed. They have too much money and power and their marketing campaigns will always win.

We have an uphill battle regardless, but as vegans, it makes much more sense to attack the root cause of the problem - the power structures that allow animal exploitation to persist: government subsidies, lack of humane and environmental law enforcement, not paying for externalities, and the social environment that allows animal abusers to live without fear of consequence, but that imposes harsh penalties for animal advocates who cause "economic damage."

Make no mistake - the ultimate vegan goal of in vitro meat isn't to create a substitute for meat per se. The ultimate goal is to put the other kind of meat industry out of business.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Why don't we just eat vegans?

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