Wrong Turning: Lab-Grown Meat

I tend to say “yes” to requests from handsome men. (It’s a character flaw, I know, and it often leads me into trouble.) So when animal activist Jon Hochschartner asked me for my thoughts on the moral problem of theodicy with reference to wild animal suffering, I published a reply and I liked what he did with it. Two days after Boxing Day isn’t the season for blogging about possible religious objections to lab-grown meat but I’m still no better than I should be, so here I am.

Ethical complexity was central to my doctoral work and whenever I get a gut reaction that I can’t immediately intellectually justify, I’m intrigued. I’ve been vegetarian for decades and vegan for years. I can’t even eat meat substitutes that taste too meaty. I hate the very idea of lab-grown meat. It appals me. Yet Jon argues otherwise and calls for massive state investment in R&D:

…cultivated meat is grown from animal cells, without slaughter. When this new protein is cheaper to produce and superior in taste to slaughtered meat, we will have achieved the conditions under which animal liberation starts to become possible.

CounterPunch 19th Nov. 2021

Put like that, bearing in mind the huge reduction in animal suffering from factory farming and slaughter, it seems like a no-brainer. So why am I instinctively against it? On reflection, I’ve identified seven reasons:

  1. Pragmatic: veganism is booming and there are already acceptable meat substitutes for those that crave them. It seems like the time to invest in changing the culture away from meat rather than towards a more ethical version.
  2. Nutritional: I’ve been lectured at, for decades, by fat people with bad skin and no stamina who frequent burger bars and wouldn’t know B12 from beetroot – and yes there are new vegans who do not eat a balanced diet – but nowadays few nutritionists would attempt to argue that a human diet heavy in animal products is healthier than one based on plants.
  3. Ideological: The push for lab-grown (and insect) meat has a global political context that even to mention this time last year earned an automatic penalty on social media – either jeers of “conspiracy theorist” or some form of shadowbanning. The Great Reset, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, leverages climate anxiety and White guilt in order to greenwash economic disruption – disproportionately impacting the most marginalised – and focusing on exploiting the bedrock of the 4th Industrial Revolution: the conflict minerals of Africa.
  4. Financial: Bill Gates (who finances: the media, government public health advisors, “fact-checkers”, the pharmaceutical industry, the World Health Organisation and both sides of the aisle in American politics, directly or indirectly) is now the biggest private owner of farmland in the USA. I say all this because his PR is so successful that any critique is immediately met, in the USA especially, with “oh you must be a [insert ideological other]”. His push for synthetic meat clearly doesn’t come from any concern for farmers – who went out of business during the lockdown his funded advisors imposed and sold their land to him (cheaply?) – or for animals – who were slaughtered early, often under even more barbaric conditions than usual.
  5. Sociological: with citizen journalism available to anyone with internet access, the mainstream media version of events falls in hegemonic power. As reports of vaccine injuries rise, along with those of the pharmaceutical industry’s attempts to cover them up, Gates may well become a toxic brand and any products he pushes unlikely to meet with consumer approval from his conservative opponents. Across the aisle, liberals are more likely to be open to veganism – so why try to sell them something less?
  6. Compassionate: Gates (while publicly expressing angst over eating cheeseburgers) does occasionally match donations for an animal sanctuary but with his money he could have bought all the animals as well as all the farmland and saved them from the gas chamber, drowning, shooting and electrocution – and hardly noticed. Why didn’t he? Because to Gates and his ilk, life on earth is the problem, not the solution.
  7. Religious: lab-grown meat does not solve any moral problems unsolved by veganism. Even for ritual purposes, there are acceptable vegan substitutes.

Done well, a religious process of pondering a moral problem is holistic, taking into account all the patterns of values concerned. While developing technology may be seen as participating in the creative energy of God, what is important is its impact: all its relations. The lines connecting lab-grown meat and human and animal life in all its fruitfulness form a spiderweb with a morally ambiguous opportunistic businessman, passing as a philanthropist, at the centre.

There was a moment, after the Second World War, when the conditions that had led to the wartime unbalanced monoculture production of carbohydrates (potatoes, wheat) that could be shipped and stored were no longer in existence. This followed centuries of disenfranchisement of the rural poor as they migrated to the cities, losing their connection to the land and their culinary, herbal and nutritional knowledge as they boarded in shacks with no kitchen and fed, almost solely, on wheat pies of meat and potatoes. As shell-shocked men returned home and deprived women of the jobs they had been doing capably for years, there could have been a reversal of the mechanisation of agriculture. Employment on labour-intensive small-holdings would have raised morale as well as levels of nutrition and avoided the turn towards factory farming that inevitably followed.

As, like it or not, we are presented with a similar moment in our history – except this time all over the world – we have the opportunity to make the right choice. Greater artificiality, centralisation of food supplies and association with industrial giants whose lack of prudence is infamous – all these things are not what is needed now. As we face the prospect of another industrial revolution, we need to turn from our former errors and not repeat them.

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image Red Germ into the Public Domain.


In the Deep Midwinter

I was expecting trouble. I went armed with an out-of-date diary and an LGB Alliance pen. I was going to prick ’em down if need be. Yes, I’m talking about The List. I was prepared – and sad that I had to be. Being an unpaid fulltime carer with three PT jobs doesn’t make any sense, nor does having to prepare for battle just to pop into town to meet up with an old friend at a concert. But this is 2021; not many things make sense anymore. So I had all the legal arguments ready, about the anticipatory duty of disabled access and the privacy of sensitive (health) information under GDPR. I was prepared to shout and stand my ground and call the police…and even leave a nasty review on TripAdvisor!

I got to the venue, an old church building in the trendy West-End, smiled at one of the performers warming up at the door and nipped into the loo, mentally preparing myself. If they asked for the Nazi Vaxx Pass I’d demand my ticket as my paid-for property and then start to cause a scene. I’d rehearsed my lines while walking the dog that morning. Ben seemed impressed, so I hoped it would be alright on the night.

The queue was full of smiling people. Yes, some did wear masks but their eyes crinkled. The cool young guys (“Gamer Twink” and “Hipster” as my urban ornithology classified them, automatically) at the desk were having the usual problems with paperless tech. The one thing the plutocrats in charge of The Great Reset have forgotten is the perennial good-natured ability of human beings to f*ck things up. I don’t know if they actually found my name or not but the Hipster (unmasked) eventually waved me through. After what may or may not have been a wee bit of flirting.

I was slightly surprised (and mildly disappointed TBH) as I mentally shredded my right-of-access lines and prepared to do battle with the bar staff. The thing is, I’ve worked behind the bar and I’ve waited tables a lot too, so I have instant empathy with serving staff. And it comes across. Trust me, ask anyone who’s ever worked in Hospitality how many nanoseconds it takes them to identify a friendly customer or an AH. Not many! So I got my birra Moretti with an exchange of smiles and friendly words. Of course I left a tip. Small acts of kindness are our lifeline ATM.

And then I prepared to negotiate with the audience. Readers who are religious will know the politics of pew placement in church; readers who aren’t will understand the quick calculation needed at the threshold of a flat party: who’s fun, who’s a bore, who’s hot, who’s unhinged? It’s exhausting to survey a crowd nowadays and have to factor in all the parameters:

  • masked (paranoid) or unmasked (normal)?
  • grouped in households?
  • view of the (raised) stage?
  • distance from the front?
  • distance from possible paranoids?
  • any sign of my mate?

I sat down on the right, three rows back (so around the middle) and left 5 empty chairs between me and the folk at the centre aisle, diagonally behind the end of a group of older men not wearing masks. Made it so far. I hadn’t seen my mate for years: what if she was mental? I sipped the Moretti and relaxed as the band, all 11 of them, took the stage, said hello, thanked us warmly for turning out, and started to play. Then a woman started to sing.

I hadn’t expected to be moved. The dress code of the band was eclectic and she was on the conservative side (the other extreme was heavy metal rock chick). But what a voice. Breathy and warm, “you won’t be alone at Midwinter” she sang. It was what we all needed to hear. By the time my mate arrived (I recognised her instantly) we’d had a taste of the full range of the repertoire. There’s an anxiety in meeting up with old friends. Try as we might, the checklist comes out: job? relationship? house? Our jobs hadn’t changed and we bonded over boats (she’d lived on one and I’d just bought one) we didn’t really get to houses or partners but, as the night went on, I realised she’d brought hers along and they seemed happy.

Sharing the music and glances and whispered phrases, graciousness over drinks and seats and admiration for the first singer – whom she knew well – all this was a departure from the usual catching up interview. Well-accompanied, I was free to enjoy the music (and the interpretative dancing of a wee sprite in the side aisles). After a while, helped by the architecture, I realised the sentiment I was feeling: this was White secular gospel and the audience were, if not at worship, at least in a state of mindful compassion. I’m not being snarky. I experienced the same sensation listening to the political comic Mark Thomas preach (against Coca-Cola, among other murderous corporations) in the same venue. It didn’t surprise me to learn he was the son of a Methodist minister. And, in snatched conversation with my friend, easier over the interval, I realised something else. Actually, a few things:

  • everyone, vaxxed or unvaxed, wants to be saved
  • many of the vaxxed are prepared to be in the mushy middle (it’s more dangerous for some, like kids and expectant mothers)
  • no-one wants to be alone at Midwinter (apart from me, cos I could really do with a break)
  • Hospitality venues are desperate for our custom – as are creatives for our appreciation

So here’s my tuppenyworth:

The resistance needs to be a broad church, not a cult (it also need to be sane). So “come out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Cor 6:17, KJV, if you must know) isn’t going to work. We need to form alliances with people who simultaneously say “I got it cos I work with vulnerable people” and “it could be the new Thalidomide”. Replying with “are you f*cking crazy!!!” isn’t going to help – but advising them to up their Niacin levels to avoid ADE might.

The 4th Industrial Revolution isn’t quite set up yet – and people are doing various things to f*ck it up (including printed exemption cards and simply disabling QR codes with a permanent maker pen) so it never will be. The plutocrats in their top-down imperial visions have forgotten that it won’t be set up without the collaboration of the people – and the people are really f*cked off ATM. Hospitality venues will welcome customers with open arms. We don’t have to lecture them or demand total ideological conformity (with whatever branch of the resistance we happen to be in). We can accept their inconsistency and just-turn-a-blind-eye approach to our adherence to fascist government regulations of medical surveillance.

It’s the recusant unvaxxed, the regretful vaxxed and the semi-awake in the mushy middle who are the only ones who will venture out to pubs and cafes and concerts – Nazi Vaxx Pass or not. The others will be too busy wetting their bed to dare the company of strangers. But, if you don’t want to be alone this Midwinter, and if you don’t want to be a slave – or dead – in the near future, then keeping strange company, and exchanging unexpected kindness, is our wisest move.

Outside view of English pub on a snowy night

Thanks to Colin Woodcock who has released his image English village pub on a snowy night into the Public Domain.