In the second of our new Expert Series, RAC member Dr Josh Milburn from the University of York reflects on whether in vitro meat is something to be welcomed or something to be rejected from the point of view of animals, animal advocates, and vegans.
Most readers will have heard about in vitro, or “lab-grown”, or “clean” meat. For those who haven’t – and as a refresher for those who have – in vitro meat is a technological innovation that sees meat grown from animal cells outside of animals’ bodies. Basically, living cells can be taken from living animals, placed in a “growth culture”, and then left to grow. The resulting animal muscle can then be collected, and formed into burgers, or meatballs, or similar. It’s been proven to be technologically feasible, and there are a number of high-tech “cellular agriculture” companies racing to bring it to the market. Some of these are focussed on in vitro beef, some on in vitro chicken, some on in vitro fish, and so on. And, indeed, many of them are aiming to create more complex meat products than the burgers and meatballs that have been the proofs of concept. While in vitro meat is not yet available to buy, it’s only a matter of time, and there are plenty of people around who have been able to eat samples – including, incidentally, some committed vegans.
In vitro meat is thus a very different thing from other plant-based meats – even the most realistic plant-based meats. It’s even a different thing from the likes of the Impossible Burger, which is one of the most realistic plant-based meats currently available. But Impossible Burgers, like in vitro meat, are products of cellular agriculture, insofar as they contain heme – a product once found only in meat, but that can now be created by humans. Other products of cellular agriculture that will be appearing on the market in the next few years includes “clean milk”, which a company called Perfect Day is creating using genetically engineered yeast.
I don’t want to talk too much about the process of creating in vitro meat or related products. I am a moral and political philosopher, not a cellular biologist. Instead, I’m interested in reflecting on whether in vitro meat is something to be welcomed, or something to be rejected – and especially whether it is something to be welcomed or something to be rejected from the point of view of animals, animal advocates, and vegans. In my experience, this is something that leads to a lot of arguments among vegans and “animal people”. But philosophy is all about trying to get to the bottom of arguments – and philosophers aren’t normally people who shy away from thinking about controversial ideas.
Let’s start with the big question: Is in vitro meat “suitable for vegans”?
The short answer, as far as I can see, is no. In vitro meat is made from animals, even if it is made in a way that, potentially, does not require any killing of animals, or any animal suffering, and even if it is made in a way that is very environmentally friendly. On the definition of “vegan” that I prefer, this means that it is not suitable for vegans. This makes in vitro meat quite different from other products of cellular agriculture. Impossible Burgers and Perfect Day’s clean milk, for example, do not contain any animal products, even if they do contain ingredients engineered to exactly imitate compounds found in animal products. Thinking clearly about these issues requires us to be clear about some important distinctions between technologies and products that it is easy to lump together.
But maybe this is the wrong question to ask. Maybe it’s more interesting to think of in vitro meat as not for us. By this, I don’t mean that in vitro meat isn’t for humans – though, as it happens, I do think that in vitro meat could be an important tool when it comes to feeding our companion animals, a small number of whom might not do so well on plant-based diets. I mean, instead, that it’s not for vegans. Maybe in vitro meat is for those people who buy into the vegan ideal, but have, for whatever reason, been unable to embrace veganism in their everyday life. I’m sure we all know some people like that. In vitro meat would allow these people to continue eating meat, but without supporting the harmful and destructive meat industry. Or maybe we can aim even higher: Maybe we could say that in vitro meat is for all meat-eaters. A large-scale shift away from animal agriculture and towards in vitro meat could do wonders for animals and for the environment, without requiring lifestyle changes on the part of individual meat-eaters. For this reason, it could be highly achievable – especially if in vitro meat, in time, is cheaper to produce than meat sourced from animal agriculture.
At this point, sceptical vegans might respond that a more straightforward way to eliminate the environmental and animal harms of animal agriculture is for us, as a society, to stop eating meat, milk, and eggs. Why go to the trouble of creating these new technologies when we have a perfectly viable alternative staring us in the face: a vegan world?
Let us imagine that a vegan world is indeed an ideal that we should be working towards. Let me put it like this: If I was sitting down to design a perfectly just, fair, and flourishing society, it would almost certainly be a vegan society. This is an activity that political philosophers would call offering an “ideal theory”. But ideal theory is not all that political philosophers do – despite what some of our less informed critics imagine – and ideal theory is not always the most useful of things when it comes to addressing injustices in the real world. Let us not forget that, when it comes to animal agriculture, we are most certainly talking about injustices in the real world: tens of billions of terrestrial vertebrates are killed for food a year, and, if we include fish, we are talking about trillions of deaths annually. Many of these animals live lives of suffering at human hands. And even if you don’t think that what we do to animals is an injustice – lots of people don’t, though I sometimes find that perspective hard to understand – the environmental damage being caused by animal agriculture is devastating the lives of many humans, including some of the world’s most vulnerable humans.
Faced with these immediate injustices, and daunted by the magnitude of the undertaking required to turn the world vegan, we might reasonably ask for a “non-ideal theory”. This is a theory that helps us move towards the ideal. Perhaps more importantly, though, it is a theory that offers us an achievable solution to – or at least partial respite from – the very real injustices of the world today. This, I think, is where in vitro meat comes in. While a vision of a society in which animal agriculture is replaced by in vitro meat may not offer us an ideal vegan political theory, it can, perhaps, offer us a non-ideal vegan political theory.
Some people might say that in vitro meat is not suitable as a part of non-ideal theory, as its production and consumption still involve serious injustices. Let me quickly address some of the arguments that they might offer.
First, vegan critics of in vitro meat might point out that it is grown in a culture of “foetal bovine serum” – a rather gruesome product of slaughterhouses. For this reason, it is not something that should be supported. In a sense, I can only agree. But I point out that the use of foetal bovine serum is not necessary to the production of in vitro meat, and note that many of the companies producing in vitro meat are transitioning away from the use of this product. In the non-ideal society I am imagining, in vitro meat will not be grown in foetal bovine serum.
Second, vegan critics of in vitro meat might observe that in vitro meat needs animals to provide cells, and so still requires animal agriculture. Animal agriculture should be rejected, and so in vitro meat should be rejected. As with the first critique, this is a sensible response worth taking seriously. But, again, I point out that in vitro meat does not require harmful animal agriculture. I don’t believe that justice for animals means that we can have no relation with animals. Some theorists of animal rights, so-called abolitionists, do, and I accept that my argument won’t be very convincing to them. But as I’m not an abolitionist, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with keeping animals around, treating them well, and occasionally taking a few cells from them. Equally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with living with companion animals, or working alongside animals. Abolitionists, on the other hand, do.
And third, vegan critics of in vitro meat might point out that growing meat from animal cells, but not human cells, is speciesist, and endorses a hierarchy of value with humans at the top and animals at the bottom. I agree. But there are at least two things we can say in response to this. First, my support for in vitro meat is intended as a non-ideal theory. Maybe it is problematic that in vitro meat is created from animals and not humans – but at least it offers a very real chance to end the horrors of animal agriculture. But, second, and to point towards perhaps one of the more surprising elements of my thinking, why assume I’m so opposed to creating in vitro human meat?
It’s my considered belief that, even if in vitro meat is not suitable for vegans, and even if in vitro meat wouldn’t feature in an ideal vegan society, it’s something that we – as animal advocates – should get behind. This needn’t mean eating it when it arrives. But it might mean encouraging our meat-eating friends and family to make the switch. It might mean lobbying politicians if there are legislative battles taking place. Or it might mean lots of other things. Crucially, though, it means not thinking of in vitro meat as a threat. If it’s a threat to anyone, it’s not to vegans – it’s to the meat industry.
I have published work on in vitro meat in the philosophy journal Res Publica. This article is behind a paywall, but you can read a draft of it – along with most of my other work – on my Academia.edu profile. You can also hear me talk about in vitro meat, including the Res Publica article, on the excellent Knowing Animals podcast. I’ve written about clean milk in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and that article is open access, so can be freely read by all.
A very readable introduction to in vitro meat is Paul Shapiro’s 2018 book Clean Meat, while both scholarly and popular articles are included in the fascinating 2016 book The Future of Meat Without Animals, edited by Brianne Donaldson and Christopher Carter. There is a lot of information about in vitro meat online, but two important sources of information are New Harvest and the Good Food Institute. These are American organisations supporting the development of cellular agriculture. If you want to read a more critical perspective on in vitro meat, I recommend the paper by John Miller in volume 10, issue 4 of the Journal for Critical Animal Studies. Miller has also been interviewed on the topic for Knowing Animals.
Animals and political philosophy is an exciting and fast-developing area of research. You can read introductions here (by Tony Milligan), here (by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, free version here), and here (by Alasdair Cochrane, Robert Garner, and Siobhan O’Sullivan, free version here). Two important scholarly books on animals in political philosophy are Zoopolis (by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka) and A Theory of Justice for Animals (by Robert Garner). The former focuses more on ideal theory, while the latter focuses more on non-ideal theory.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.