Wednesday, October 02, 2013

In Vitro Meat Versus Plant-Based Meat

By Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I analyze the recent unveiling of cultured (a.k.a. "In Vitro") beef burgers at an event in London.  I offer an explanation for why I do not share the enthusiasm of some of my fellow vegans for the development of In Vitro meat.  In this post, I want to take up the related issue of plant-based meat products and raise the question whether, if one opposes cultured meat, one ought to oppose plant-based meat as well.

First, some definitions.  Cultured meat is an animal-cell-based product that is grown in a laboratory but that originates with a cell from an actual animal (a cow).  Plant-based meat is a product that contains no animal ingredients at all but that has been prepared to share the flavors and textures that people associate with animal products.  Examples include vegan versions of beef, chicken, and cheese dishes made by Gardein (for "garden protein") Tofurky, Beyond Meat, and Daiya, among many others.  Some people refer to these foods as "fake meats and cheeses," but I would reject that nomenclature as (perhaps inadvertently) dignifying the slaughterhouse analogues of plant-based foods as somehow more authentic.

Readers can tell that I think there is a world of difference between plant-based meat or cheese and cultured meat or cheese, given that I have linked to the web sites of the vegan meat and cheese products but written a column expressly rejecting cultured meat.  So why do I distinguish between these two sorts of products?

One very important distinction between the two is that vegan meats and cheeses do not originate inside an animal.  As I explain in my column, this is especially significant in the case of the cultured meat served recently in London, because such meat originated (and must originate) in cells that are taken from real cows. That is, the animal cells at issue do not replicate indefinitely and thus do not obviate the "need" for breeding and slaughtering animals, even for consumers who decide to switch from "In Vivo" to "In Vitro" hamburgers.

Another distinction, however, would remain even if scientists were able to design an eternally self-replicating animal-cell-based burger.  That is the distinction between centering our demand on the origins of our food ("it must come from an animal for me to like it") and centering our demand, instead, on the preparation of our food ("I will like it if it has a delicious flavor and texture").  The first insists on consuming the cells of animal and treats a departure from that way of eating as "off the table," while the second adjusts to animal-free cuisine with creativity and flexibility, understanding that few people actually enjoy flesh in its unaltered -- uncooked, unspiced, unsalted -- form (the way that, say, a lion truly does).

When I first stopped eating animals, I at first missed the flavors and textures that I associated with flesh foods.  There is nothing surprising about that -- we all have things we enjoy doing because we are used to doing them, and changing can require some reorientation.  I came to learn, however, that flavors and textures are very much a feature of cooking, spicing, and preparation, rather than turning on the nature of the original cells as animal or plant-based.  Plant-based meats and cheeses can be delicious and fun to eat, but I like the fact that however much they resemble animal-based foods (and some of them have fooled even committed flesh-consumers in taste tests), they are in fact made entirely from non-animal sources.

When scientists produce an animal-based burger in a test-tube, by contrast, we have no way of knowing for sure that the burger in question came to exist without the breeding, maiming, and slaughter of a sentient being.  So long as actual cows, chickens, pigs, fishes, and other living, sentient creatures inhabit this earth, moreover, it will always be possible that a "bio-identical" food is in fact a product of torture and killing.  Anatomically, we will not be able to tell.

To offer an analogy, consider "ahimsa leather."  This is animal skin-based materials that allegedly come from cows who lived and died naturally, without ever encountering a human with a captive-bolt gun or a knife.   Some people purchase couches and other items labeled as ahimsa (harmless) leather.  But no one can really know, from examining the leather itself, even under a microscope, whether the cow whose skin it contains was in fact  permitted to live out her life in peace.

Ahimsa leather also illustrates another problem with cultured meat (versus plant-based meat).  If those of us who oppose the slaughter and hurting of animals nonetheless purchase couches or jackets made out of dead animals' skin, then we reinforce for those around us the supposed desirability of such items.  And humans are a highly social, imitative species.  If we want to help reorient our friends and neighbors to the (very easy) choice to shun cruelty-based foods and clothing, we do it most effectively by turning away altogether from animal items.

Some day, I hope it will come to pass that people no longer use and slaughter animals to feed and clothe themselves (or to otherwise satisfy their desires).  At that point, I expect that it will seem no more desirable to culture and prepare the ground-up flesh of a cow for consumption than it will seem to culture and eat the ground-up flesh of a man.  To get to that point, vegan versions of animal foods can provide a painless transition, one that, significantly, purports to be exactly what it is -- a way to satisfy your cravings without harming an animal.  I don't expect that In Vitro meat could change the world and the way we look at animals in that way.


The Dismal Political Economist said...

As a person with one foot in the vegan/vegetarian world (no condemnation please, that’s one foot more than there was five years ago) I find myself in the curious position of being somewhat more militant (and a hypocrite in my own right) than Ms. Colb on the subject of plant derived meat products. Her comments on meat derived from animal cell products are spot on, and need no further enhancements other than maybe adding the “yuck” factor. But as far as plant based meat like products, I see no role for them in the vegan/vegetarian diet.

The reason for this is that if a person is going to eliminate animal based products from the diet and lifestyle, then go ahead and eliminate them and their faux relatives. Meat as a food in and of itself is pretty bad. Meat is largely a carrier for spices and sauces and flavors. Take away the 11 herbs and spices and the fat and from the Colonel and you have an almost inedible product that few would even consider consuming. BBQ, the mainstay of where I reside is simply a situation where the meat is a carrier for smoke, vinegar, molasses and other flavors. Add to this the fact that mass produced meat today is totally lacking in any kind of attractive flavor or texture or appearance and one rapidly reaches the conclusion that it has no role in the taste/texture preferences in a diet.

Furthermore, unlike years ago there are now incredibly delicious vegetable based dishes that were not available years ago, and with the internet there are thousands of recipes for the asking. The vegan recipes on Food52 and on Mark Bittman’s site (among others) are more than sufficient to satisfy any palate. Previously things like the ‘Tofurkey’ set a movement towards an animal product free diet back decades, today any gourmet can satisfy themselves with a vegan meal. Vegetable patties like Mr. Bittman proposes are far tastier than hamburger, which is edible only because one puts mustard and ketchup and onions and relish and tomatoes and other stuff on it.

The point, plant based meats are really not necessary. If one is going to give up meat, then give it up, real and fake. Vegetables and fruits and nuts and other non-meat products can carry the sauces and seasonings and flavors as well as meat, one just doesn’t need a plant based meat like product. Let it go.

Joe said...
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Joe said...

Plant based meats are in effect convenience foods in many cases. If people never hear of "meat," what they would amount to are slices, chunks and so forth of vegan foods. On that front, they might not be as healthy as various other vegan foods, but I'm an ethical vegetarian. Convenience works for me.

I think the "reinforce" argument, to move on, a good one. This is akin to fake fur. One "charm" for some here is that it looks like the real thing. That seems to promote, to the uninformed, actual fur. You might know it isn't fur, but especially from a distance, others might not.

OTOH, and I have disagreed with some here on this point in the past on some of the details, there is some value in a step in the right direction here.

Sam Rickless said...

I understand the argument that it's best on the whole to stay away from cultured meat because we should not reinforce the supposed desirability of meat. But I'm skeptical of at least some of the rest of your arguments.

1. Perhaps I should have read your column first, but I don't see why culturing meat *requires* the slaughter of animals. If what we need are cells, then these can be harvested, at least in principle, without killing the animal from which they are harvested.

2. Whether we can tell that a piece of meat is cultured or not depends on a lot of things. As I understand it, existing attempts to culture meat involve the painstaking layering of cells. It would not surprise me to learn that existing cultured meat is easily distinguished from regular meat, at least under a microscope, or perhaps by using other imaging technology.

3. Future cultured meat might indeed be indistinguishable from regular meat under the microscope. But here I'm just not seeing why this matters. Can you tell the difference between a shirt produced in a unionized factory and a shirt produced in a dingy, unsafe sweatshop? Can you tell the difference between a strawberry produced on an organic farm and a strawberry produced on a farm that kills local animals and destroys local ecosystems through the use of highly toxic pesticides? Presumably, cultured meat production would end up just as regulated as other agricultural production is regulated. Companies that produce cultured meat would advertise the fact, in just the way that companies advertise the fact that their coffee is grown responsibly and according to fair trade principles and that their strawberries are grown organically. We would then need to trust government inspectors to make sure that the companies are not misleading the public through false advertising.

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