In a 1932 essay called "Fifty Years Hence" Winston Churchill wrote of his vision of the world in 1982: "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.'' Although Churchill was optimistic about the timeframe, on Monday (August 5) many animal welfare and vegetarian organisations hailed the first public tasting of a lab grown burger (in vitro meat) in London with as a positive sign of a brave new world, a future with less exploitation of non-human animals for food. While it is still early days in the development of this technology - it is estimated it will be at least ten years before the product reaches the market - The Vegan Society thinks that the debate about whether this is the future of vegan food is a distraction from the real issue of promoting plant-based diets as a valid solution here and now.
An expensive solution
Leaving aside the discussion about whether or not in vitro meat (IVM) is capable of reducing (non-human animal) suffering; reducing environmental impact and positively affecting human health, in vitro meat is likely to be an expensive item for quite some time. Plant-based (vegan) diets on the other hand are already readily available and need not be expensive. The Dutch Vegan Society has produced an excellent poster depicting in vitro meat in a test tube and a plant-based vegan burger. The choice is clear.
The Yuck Factor
There is still much public resistance to IVM whereas everyone already eats some plant-based foods in their diet (although many people do not eat enough of these foods to enjoy good health and to reduce their risk of that plague of modern living, obesity). There is, as some commentators have remarked, a 'yuck factor' to test tube meat that has to be overcome before IVM could ever go mass market. Idiosyncratic tastes aside, the public do not currently object to eating plants.
Who pays for its development? It could be you.
It is also possible that in order to overcome the public resistance to IVM (footnote 1) governments and charities will be asked to fund PR campaigns and meet the research and development costs of IVM (footnote 2). This could possibly lead to public revenue being spent on developing and promoting a technology and product that the majority of the public do not want and that will be of benefit to only those who can afford it. The Dutch government has already funded research into IVM conducted by New Harvest.
Lab grown meat will lead to inequalities in society
As IVM will, at least initially, produce inequalities of wealthy meat eaters who will be able to pay for the benefits claimed for IVM - a situation analogous to the current claims made for 'free range organic meat'. We need an alternative to meat and dairy diets for everyone and not just for those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. That alternative already exists - plant-based diets can be enjoyed inexpensively.
IVM ignores the existing solution
The promotion of IVM as a solution to the planet's food resource problems undermines the existing solution of plant-based diets by ignoring the powerful vested interests and social forces that create 'demand' for meat and that routinely stigmatise veganism (footnote 3). In fact IVM could further stimulate 'demand' for meat by perpetuating a myth that meat is, and will always be, intrinsically desirable. Our taste preferences and food choices are shaped by our culture and our values, rather than being purely 'innate' or 'natural' inclinations as many people suppose (footnote 4). As a species we have a great ability to adapt and we are more than capable of re-educating our preferences regarding our diet and lifestyle choices.
Promoting veganism has immediate benefits
A plant-based diet is affordable and available to everyone right now. It is democratic rather than discriminatory. The massive scale of exploitation of non-human animals and the environmental damage resulting from meat eating must not wait for the speculative promises of IVM advocates for a solution. The Vegan Society suggests that the real need is for better policies to promote alternatives to IVM. This might include subsidising the substitution of horticulture and forestry for the exploitation of farmed animals, educating the public on the preparation, benefits and pleasures of plant-based diets, changing public food procurement policies to make plant-based meals ubiquitous in public services such as schools and hospitals and eliminating the advertising of foods that depend on the exploitation of farmed animals. If this sounds idealistic we would counter that it is no more so than suggesting that future of food is to be found growing in a laboratory test tube.
Co-authored with Dr Matthew Cole - Cole, M. (2010) Is in vitro meat the future of food? The case against, paper presented at Vegetarian Society AGM, 11 Sept, Dragon House, London.
1. In a 2005 EU survey of the public, 54% of respondents said they would 'never' approve of IVM. Only 6% said they would approve of IVM 'in all circumstances' (UK figures: 50% and 6% respectively). IVM ranked 21st in order of popularity in 22 examples of 'future applications of science'. Only human cloning to prevent genetically transmitted disease met more public resistance.
2. IVMC (2008) Preliminary Economics Study: http://invitromeat.org/images/Papers/invitro%20meat%20economics%20study%20v5%20%20march%2008.pdf p.3
3. See: Cole, M. and Morgan, K. (2011) 'Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers', British Journal of Sociology 61 (1)
4. See for example: Carol Adams (2004) The Sexual Politics of Meat: a feminist-vegetarian critical theory (10th Anniversary Edition) London: Continuum; Nick Fiddes (1991) Meat: a natural symbol: London Routledge; Hoogland, C.T., de Boer, J. and Boersema, J.J. (2005) 'Transparency in the meat chain in the light of food culture and history', Appetite 45: 15-23.