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.