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.

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