Lab-Grown Meat and Other Followups to "Veganism, Year Eleven"

by Neil H. Buchanan

Yesterday, I published my annual veganniversary column here on Dorf on Law: "Veganism, Year Eleven: Capitalism and Freedom."  In it, I offered my standard update on what it is like to live as a vegan, noting that "veganism is ascendant" in the sense that in the first-world places that I frequent, the food industry is enthusiastically responding to market demand for better and wider vegan choices.

I then noted that this virtuous cycle -- better vegan products encourage more people to eat vegan food (even people who do not self-identify as fully vegan), which encourages more restaurants and food stores to supply better vegan options, which encourages still more people to eat vegan food, and so on -- is one of the best arguments available in favor of capitalism properly understood.  That is, if capitalism is the system by which demand and supply interact in ways that are superior to central planning -- put differently, if Adam Smith's invisible hand has any meaning at all -- then the expanding availability and consumption of vegan food is capitalism par excellence.

Because of my preference for writing about political issues, I then used that column to note that the Democrats who are now being red-baited -- including those who call themselves democratic socialists -- are in fact better capitalists than are Republicans, who claim to love "the free market" but in fact really only love rich people and will rig the system to allow even bad capitalists to remain rich.

Washington Post economics columnist Catherine Rampell offered a related argument today, demonstrating that "Trump is the true socialist" by using government to subsidize big agriculture and engaging in central planning to prop up failing industries like coal.  The Republicans' hypocrisy is rank.  The subtitle of my column yesterday refers to conservative icon Milton Friedman's superficial bestseller, Capitalism and Freedom, which became a bible for people who misunderstand Adam Smith and who rail against Big Government.

All of which means that, as usual, I used the veganism part of my veganniversary column as an excuse to talk about something else.  I do so not because I think of veganism as unimportant -- I am glad to have embraced veganism, so much so that I celebrate it on this blog annually -- but because my comparative advantage is in writing about economics and law, not vegan philosophy.  (Even my word choice there, comparative advantage, tips the reader to my default mindset.)

Even so, one reader of yesterday's column posted a series of questions on the comments board, seeking my views on some ethical and practical matters.  As those questions were quite interesting, I will use the remainder of this column to answer them, focusing in particular on how I feel about the prospect of lab-grown meat.

To be clear, when I say that the philosophy of veganism in not my comparative advantage, I do not merely mean that there are other people "out there" who are better able to address such ethical issues than I am.  For comparison, I think I have some interesting thoughts about the ethics of big-time college sports (most importantly, I oppose cash payments to players), but I understand that there are others who are more immersed in that topic and that I am a bit of an interloper when I occasionally write about it.

On questions of vegan ethics, however, the group of other people who are more immersed in the topic than I am include my two co-bloggers (and close friends) Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf.  They are not "out there" but "in here," so I want to be especially clear that I am offering an interloper's thoughts on these issues.  Luckily, Professor Dorf responded on the comment board with some references and a citation to a column by Professor Colb, so here I can simply encourage readers to find and enjoy those writings.

That said, here is the comment (lightly edited for typos) to which I would like to respond here:
"Assuming it was feasible to produce lab-grown meat, in large quantities, with minimal environmental impact, would you still maintain your position that a vegan diet is better (more sustainable, less ethical issues)? A large number of arguments against meat consumption seem to revolve around moral conundrums about animal treatment and welfare, and rightly so. Still other pro-plant based ideologies argue about the environmental impact/sustainability of animal product consumption (ie not enough biomass for everyone to consume animal protein as we have in the past). If the legitimate issues presented could be overcome by lab grown meat products, wouldn't letting people choose how to eat responsibly be the best way to tackle the issue? Vegans can continue to be vegans, and those who wished to consume animal products could do so as well, without the accompanying hassles of animal suffering, or questions of sustainability.

"Professor Buchanan, as someone who has obviously been very committed to a Vegan lifestyle, could you come up with any ethical arguments arising from lab grown cuts of meat slated for human consumption? Do you think it will trigger the same response from Christian Conservatives that stem cells did in the late 90s and early 2000s? Finally, do you see the public distrust of GMOs as interfering with the pursuit of humanity's quest to feed 7+ billion people sustainably?"
Those are some very challenging questions!  I can offer only short answers to the final two questions:
  • "Do you think it will trigger the same response from Christian Conservatives that stem cells did in the late 90s and early 2000s?"  Unless there is something about lab-grown meat that I have not heard about (admittedly a very real probability), I do not see why this would upset the religious right.  They are especially worked up about human life and when it begins, which is how their entire movement metastasized from an opportunistic response to Roe v. Wade (based on very little actual theology, and all of that highly tendentious).  I simply do not see how lab-grown meat would set their spidey senses a-tingle.
  • "[Do you] see the public distrust of GMOs as interfering with the pursuit of humanity's quest to feed 7+ billion people sustainably?"  This one is simply beyond my expertise.  I guess my tentative answer would be, "Probably, but I'm not as serene about GMO's as some people are, so the public's distrust might be a good thing, at least in part."
Now to the main event, which is the ethics of lab-grown meat itself.  To begin, I happily associate myself with this statement from Professor Dorf's third entry on yesterday's comment board, in which he responded to the reader's question: "I am very glad [the attempt to create lab-grown meat] is being undertaken, because it will use many orders of magnitude fewer animals and for the likely lessened environmental impact you identify. ...  I agree that switching people who would otherwise be eating conventionally slaughtered animals to lab-grown meat would be a very good development."

I frequently note (e.g., in last year's veganniversary column) that veganism is unique in being supportable via four separate categories of arguments: ethics, health, ecology, and economics.  All four lead to the conclusion that people should be vegan, so there is no trade-off of, say, ecological concerns for health-related concerns.  But because I am a vegan for ethical reasons -- that is, even if there were arguments from other perspectives that pointed away from veganism, I would still be a vegan -- I will answer the lab-grown meat question solely from an ethical perspective.  (For what it might be worth, my take is that lab-grown meat would be an environmental winner, an epidemiological draw, and an economic winner; but I might be wrong about some or all of that.)

From my ethical perspective, lab-grown meat is clearly moral.  That is, I became a vegan when I learned that animals were suffering and dying to provide food and other products to humans, even products that do not necessarily seem to require that an animal suffer or die.  Accordingly, if I were presented with an omelet that was made from eggs that were truly cruelty-free, I would have no moral/ethical problem with the idea of consuming it.  (At this point, animal products have taken on an "ick factor" for me; so I would be no more likely to want to eat an "ethical" egg than I would be to eat human flesh that was taken from a person who died of natural causes.  But that is not about the ethics of pain and suffering.)

The fact is that Animals are tortured and killed for these products, and the added tragedy is that human beings simply do not need to consume those products.  It would be a different question to ask how to balance the needs of non-human animals against human animals, but veganism is ethically straightforward precisely because no amount of animal suffering can be justified by what humans "get" from the torture and killing of non-human, sentient beings.

That means that lab-grown meat would be no different ethically from the many "mock meats" that have been produced to date, the most commercially and aesthetically successful of which I discussed in yesterday's column (Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers).  I do know a vegan who refuses to eat those mock meats precisely because they are too similar to (and redolent of) animal flesh, setting off her ickiness response.  But again, that is not an ethical question.  Similarly, I would not eat lab-grown meat, but I would not feel immoral if I were to change my mind about that.

The bottom line is that, at least as a first-order matter, lab-grown meat (assuming, possibly counterfactually, that it can/could be produced with no animal suffering) is an ethical non-issue for me (and for, I assume, many if not most or all other vegans).  Animals have rights to live full lives free of suffering, and if those rights are not abridged by lab-grown meat, happy eating!

Note that I did stipulate that this is a first-order matter.  The second-order concern is that the creation of lab-grown meat might give people reason to eat more products from animals, perhaps in response to the taste for "real meat" that lab-grown meat could induce.  One could imagine animal flesh becoming a luxury good, the object of conspicuous consumption along the lines of smoking Cuban cigars or listening to LP vinyl records.

I should be clear that I have not been able to come up with a convincing reason to believe that this second-order concern would ever become quantitatively meaningful, that is, large enough to outweigh the harms of factory-slaughtered animals today.  I would be horrified by the prospect of a meat-eating version of Jeffrey Epstein cruelly torturing animals for fun, just as I am horrified by hunting (and especially "canned hunts" of exotic animals that have been drugged and put in narrow ranges).  Even though things like that would be likely to happen (and should be criminalized for a variety of reasons), however, it is beyond me how that could add up to anything remotely approaching the horrors of today's animal product-caused suffering.

Perhaps the most useful way to talk about this issue in a general sense is that one should be open to evidence and arguments for second- and higher-order concerns, especially those that are not obvious from the start.  Short of those, however, I am not aware of an ethical/moral issue that would cause me to oppose lab-grown meat.

Accordingly, and based on what I know now, I am rooting for the companies that are trying to produce lab-grown meat to succeed, at which point the invisible hand can do its work by allowing producers and consumers to decide through the market how much such meat will be produced.  As long as it is cruelty-free, I have no more ethical interest in whether people eat lab-grown meat than I have in whether people watch TV shows live or on Hulu or TiVo.  Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing, when it is exercised without harming other sentient creatures.