Animal liberation?

Essay by Cor van der Weele and Clemens Driessen

Perhaps the most uplifting promise of in vitro meat is that it will be good for animals. Animal cells are needed to make it, but only in small amounts, and if algae can be used to feed these cells, no animals need to suffer for this meat. In 2008, the animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) offered one million dollars to whoever could develop marketable in vitro chicken by 2012. As that deadline proved to be too tight, PETA used the money to subsidize in vitro meat research. Many other people, too, welcome in vitro meat primarily because of what it may mean for animals. Even though they often find the idea strange and perhaps even a bit uncanny, the promise for animals is widely felt as a source of hope.

The background of this hope is not hard to understand. While the global consumption of meat is rising steadily, its moral reputation is shrinking, at least in Western societies. The problems associated with meat are becoming ever more widely known and discussed: animal suffering in factory farming, alarming greenhouse gas emissions, enormous and ever expanding use of land, water and energy. Moreover, all these problems are deepening as the growing world population is expected to double its meat consumption in the coming decades.

Most people know or surmise something about these problems, and they feel uneasy about them, especially about the fate of animals in factory farming. More than ten years ago, a Danish study already found that meat eaters were almost as negative about meat as non-meat eaters, especially because of intensive animal farming. Yet most of us continue to love and eat meat. How is this possible? Are we really indifferent, deep down? That is what Jonathan Safran Foer thinks: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference.”

While the global consumption of meat is rising steadily, its moral reputation is shrinking

But there is reason to doubt this. Unease is a sign of ambivalence, which is not the same as indifference: it does not signal the absence of concern, but tension, in this case between fondness of meat and concern for animals. The difference may be hard to tell in practice, because ambivalence does not necessarily result in action. One of the ways to deal with the psychological discomfort of ambivalence is turning away from unwelcome information. Such ‘strategic ignorance’ is typically not completely conscious, and it is a paradoxical phenomenon: turning away from learning more because you’re not indifferent. There are many signs that strategic ignorance is a frequent and routine way of dealing with ambivalence about meat. “If you want to eat meat, you should not know too much about it”, is an example of what people say, or “If I paid attention to every factory farmed chicken, shopping would be much more expensive.” Judging from their behavior, such people may look indifferent, while in fact they cope with ambivalence through strategic ignorance. This coping strategy is aided by the invisibility of factoryfarming and the invisibility of the animal origin of many meat products. But as the shadowy aspects of meat are becoming more widely discussed, it becomes ever more difficult not to be troubled by meat.

The alleged unnaturalness of in vitro meat may be precisely what we are looking for

In vitro meat takes both the love for meat and the unease about it seriously. In the first moral review of in vitro meat, Hopkins and Dacey framed in vitro meat precisely as a way for meat eaters to eat meat with a clear conscience. This is also what we find in responses towards the idea of in vitro meat in interviews and workshops. The idea of moral hope dominates, for animals as well as for our conscience. Even people whose first response is to recoil from the idea (“yuck!”) tend to quickly realize the promise: “But wait a minute; when I think of what it might mean for animals, it already looks different.” That in vitro meat is welcomed because it promises a solution for ambivalence about meat and animals was also clear from media responses to Mark Post’s proof-of-concept hamburger. As a Daily Telegraph commentator wrote, “This should be a source of unalloyed joy for those of us, like me, who love a good chunk of meat but feel a nagging disquiet knowing that a conscious being had to be bred and then killed in order for me to eat it.”

Yet the idea of in vitro meat comes with ambivalences of its own. The idea makes many people hesitant about our food becoming ever more technological, unnatural and industrial. Will it alienate us further from nature and from While the global consumption of meat is rising steadily, its moral reputation is shrinking The alleged unnaturalness of in vitro meat may be precisely what we are looking for animals? Wouldn’t it be better if we changed our behavior? Does dependence on a technological solution amount to moral laziness? If we care about the quality of our future food systems, we must take these questions seriously — and a further reason to do so is that in vitro meat can only be helpful for animals if it is attractive (enough) for humans. In their discussion of the pros and cons of in vitro meat, Hopkins and Dacey already gave some consideration to these issues. Building partly on their work, and on some of the designs that are shown in this book, we have been holding workshops to explore future scenarios of in vitro meat and why and how they are attractive or unattractive. On the basis of these and other sources, what can we say about the ambivalences of in vitro meat? We will look at two kinds of uneasiness: first about unnaturalness and our relations with nature, then about the idea that in vitro meat promotes moral laziness.

The idea of in vitro meat and its public reception can be considered as a form of inquiry into the meanings of meat

Hopkins and Dacey say that “the alleged unnaturalness” of in vitro meat may be precisely what we are looking for, since at least some of the ‘natural’ ways of producing meat are very problematic. The latter is certainly true for factory farming. In our workshops we found that every time the unnaturalness of in vitro meat turned up, it was followed by remarks to the effect that factory farming and current meat processing are not very natural either. More generally, discussions on in vitro meat always tended to become discussions on the drawbacks of ‘normal’ meat. That does not yet mean that in vitro meat is automatically an inspiring alternative. Simon Fairlie, writing about the future of meat, thinks that in vitro meat will further estrange us from nature and from animals. While the organic sector is campaigning for slow food and real meat, he says, in vitro meat represents the opposite tendency, towards factory-produced forms of protein.

While in vitro meat may slowly become less strange, meat as we know it starts to look stranger

In response, it can be argued that even when in vitro meat is produced in big factories, it will be good for our relations with animals, because if in vitro meat replaces factory farming, the lives of the remaining food animals no longer need to be dominated by the all encompassing need for efficiency. But big factories are not the only option. From one of our workshops a scenario emerged that we called ‘the pig in the backyard’. According to this vision of in vitro meat production, pigs in urban backyards serve as the living donors for muscle stem cells through biopsies every now and then. While the pigs live happy lives as companion animals, feeding on our waste food, their cells are cultured in local meat factories. This scenario focuses not on the products of in vitro meat, but on what the technology could mean for humananimal relations through local production.

Workshop participants experienced this scenario as almost too good to be true. Here we have it all, they said: meat, a clear conscience, local production and close contact between humans and animals, which was felt to represent the opposite The idea of in vitro meat and its public reception can be considered as a form of inquiry into the meanings of meat While in vitro meat may slowly become less strange, meat as we know it starts to look stranger of alienation from animals. Interestingly, worries about in vitro meat being too technological or unnatural were also absent here. The enthusiasm is an indication that mode and site of production make a difference for the appreciation of in vitro meat, just as they do for ‘normal’ meat, and that in developing in vitro meat, production processes need as much attention as products.

In vitro meat encourages new perspectives on meat

In later workshops, responses to this scenario were less euphoric. People saw it as really too good to be true, even as utterly unrealistic. After all, it goes against many trends in food production, such as increasing scale, strict standards of hygiene, and the expulsion of food animals from the city. Urban farms were seen as somewhat more realistic than backyards, but even then, a pigin- the-city scenario can hardly be expected to be the default scenario for in vitro meat. Hamburgers or ‘magic meat balls’ from factories were seen as much more feasible.

At the same time, the prospect of pigs on urban farms touches on other current initiatives. For example, ‘Varkenshuis’ (Pig House) was an art project that involved the rearing of pigs in public yards as a neighborhood responsibility. It was performed in one village and two cities in the Netherlands. After six to ten months, the pigs were slaughtered and their meat was distributed among the people of the neighborhood. The aim of the project was to bring people in close contact with the animals they eat, to expose and reverse alienation from the sources of our meat. In the cities, emotions in response to the pigs ran high; for example, petitions were organized in bothof them to prevent the pigs from being slaughtered. This once again demonstrates that when they know and see, people are anything but indifferent to the fate of animals.

Pig houses partly point in different directions than the scenario of pigs in backyards for in vitro meat. While both aim at closer interaction between humans and animals, one promotes realism about meat that comes from animals, while the other aims at moral purity through technology. Yet it is fascinating to see how old peasant-like traditions and new technology can converge and interact to make us rethink meat, our relations with animals and our moral identities with regard to meat.

In vitro meat thus seems to encourage new perspectives on meat and to inspire moral change long before it is on the market — as this book also exemplifies. But the opposite has been argued as well. In vitro meat may stand in the way of moral change, at least in the short term, precisely because of its technological promise. As a Dutch columnist wrote, in vitro meat does not challenge the addiction to meat but legitimates it. Meat eaters may just keep on “stuffing themselves full of meat”, knowing that a technological fix to the problems is in the making. In other words, technology makes for moral laziness.

There is something to the idea that in the short term, in vitro meat may not be much more than a source of hope for many people. Does it therefore stand in the way of moral change? As we see it, this expectation is based on a too narrow view of moral change and its relation to technology. Technology and morality are not necessarily opposing ways of dealing with problems: they can be intertwined.

To begin with, the moral laziness argument seems to assume that moral change necessarily comes down to changes in our values and behavior. Hopkins and Dacey responded to this objection by saying that there are other moral goals than our own virtuousness. Maybe in vitro meat does not help clean our souls, but reducing animal suffering and preventing global environmental destruction are worthwhile moral goals in and of themselves. Technology, in other words, can be developed for moral reasons and for moral goals, and in vitro meat is a clear example. Those who reject in vitro meat as a source of moral change may be too optimistic about behavior change; despite the urgency of a decrease in meat consumption, the global trend is very different.

Imagination is crucial when it comes to redirections of desire and morality

In the long run, a technology, or even the mere idea of a particular technology such as in vitro meat, can also influence moral values. The proposal of in vitro meat may not immediately change meat consumption, yet it further activates existing ambivalences about meat. Slowly but surely it may help to change the moral landscape in which our thoughts and decisions about meat, or protein consumption, take place; the idea of in vitro meat and its public reception can be considered as a form of inquiry into the meanings of meat. These meanings differ among (sub)cultures. It may not be an accident that this inquiry has been initiated in the Netherlands, a country in which kroketten (croquettes), frikandellen, hamburgers and amorphous chicken filets are dominant elements of the food culture. During our workshops, only older people asked whether it would be possible to create particular cuts of meat, for example rib eye or entrecote. Younger generations tended to be happy with hamburgers. Yet regardless of such differences, while in vitro meat may slowly become less strange, meat as we know it starts to look stranger. As The Times editorial said in response to the in vitro meat hamburger presented in August 2013: “How absurd is it to imagine all our meat one day being produced by a tissue culturing process? Not much more absurd than it is to imagine our meat continuing to be produced as it is now.”

Such processes of change take place in interaction with other developments, as the pig in the backyard scenario illustrates. In the ongoing questioning of meat, old traditions and new technology may join hands. These new combinations are typically explored in the boundary area of science, art and design, with the imagination as a prominent ingredient.

The American philosopher John Deweyhas argued that the imagination is crucial when it comes to large redirections of desire and morality. If he is right, as we think he is, the need for the imagination in the context of meat and our relations with animals is large. It is a domain where depressing realities exist that make huge amounts of animals unhappy, and many people too, but that have proven to be very hard to change. Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation, the book that played such a crucial role in the development of animal ethics, has put much hope on in vitro meat. Might in vitro meat indeed become the vehicle of animal liberation that will make us look back in 50 years, wondering how people were ever able to morally tolerate factory farming? For now, much is still open about the moral dynamics generated by in vitro meat. And though there are no recipes for moral change, a cookbook may be a good way to get a taste of the future of meat.