Why Animal Advocacy May Not Be The Most Efficient Way To Save Animals
How Do We Help Animals Faster?
When you sort through the list of disruptive innovations shaking up the world today, most seem trivial when compared to the potential of growing meat without animals. Self driving cars, smart homes, and virtual reality are interesting, but slaughter-free flesh and meat without misery seems far more disruptive than anything else out there. In the early 1800s people didn’t care much about whales or the systematic killing of these giant mammals for their fat. But an interesting thing happened when a technology was created that made the need for whale blubber, as a fuel, outdated. People started caring more about the treatment of whales, about their role in the ecosystem and canvassed for their protection. This technology? Kerosene. Until there was a replacement for fuel, the whales were needed for fuel and few people cared about the plight of whale populations or the suffering and slaughtering of whales.
Similarly, most people didn’t care about the hundreds of thousands of horses that were used to pull carts around the streets of 18th and 19th century towns and cities around the world. Think about how we hold horses in such high regard today. Although a match in intelligence and emotions with a cow, the horse today is not thought of or treated in the same way as a cow by the majority of the world. This is because about one century ago the internal combustion engine was invented and Henry Ford commercialized the car. Henry Ford rendered horses as labour totally obsolete and almost overnight the horse was saved. So, in the end, what saved the horses from labour in the streets wasn’t humanitarian efforts, it was technology.
"Modern “mass confinement” livestock production is designed for hyper-efficiency, but only in the context of the massively inefficient enterprise of using 50 or 60 billion creatures per year, worldwide, to convert plant protein into nutritionally inferior animal protein."
Although I’m sure Henry Burgh was happy with the end result, he must have been left a little frustrated, after all, he’d been campaigning for decades to get the working horses of The Northeastern United States better conditions to live under. Henry Burgh was an animal welfare advocate and pioneer, he got animal protection laws passed, formed organizations, and changed the public thinking of animal exploitation. Yet Henry Ford did more for horses than Henry Burgh ever dreamed of doing.
“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. . . . The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.” Winston Churchill, 1931
Technology gave us factory farming and ironically, technology may be the solution to ending factory farming, and not the animal advocacy movement. That’s right, all the protests, the letter writing, the lobbying, and chaining ourselves to farm equipment may not be what in the end saves the animals. Instead, the pigs, the chickens, the goats, the turkeys, the cows, the rabbits, and the sheep may find their salvation from silicon valley entrepreneurs who may not even be vegan.
"In 10 years, planted based milks have increased from 1 to 10% of fluid milks consumed in the U.S. and with this, the dairy herd has decreased. However, plant based “meat” is still well below 1% of animal meat sold in the U.S."
So what is this laboratory “meat” anyway? Sounds suspect, even dangerous. But it’s not and there happens to be both animal advocacy and a quest for profits behind it. At its simplest, clean meat is a technology in which actual cells taken from an animal are cultured and fed in a laboratory.
A bit of muscle tissue placed in a tank akin to a fermenter supplies nutrients to keep the cells replicating, and electrical currents are used to warm and stimulate them. It’s being called, cellular agriculture, the process of growing foods from cells vs the conventional way of factory farming. They literally grow skeletal muscle from satellite cells and feed those cells in order to produce actual animal meat. The big benefit is that it’s far more humane and requires far fewer resources. One sample from one cow could produce 20,000 tons of meat, about 175 million burgers. It’s cleaner for the consumer and the environment.
This clean meat has the potential of sparing billions of animals from a lifetime of misery and violent slaughter in a way that all the advocacy in the world can’t do. On one hand this is very exciting, a real possibility that in our lifetime we could see factory farming cut by 90%. On the other hand, a feeling of helplessness, uselessness and frustration when change isn't coming from the place we had hoped it would–our compassion. Instead it’s coming from a quest for profits, not dissimilar from the whale and horse examples above.
In Peter Shapiro’s new book, Clean Meat, he explains the current method of cellular agriculture that is being commercialized. First, a biopsy of muscle and fat tissue is taken from a living animal, this tissue is subjected to conditions that mimic the growth processes of a living creature. As the cells proliferate, a liquid medium feeds them vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and sugars. All of this in bio-reactors that stimulate the cells to build muscle fibre. The bio-reactor, will be the centerpiece of the industry, Mr. Shapiro says. Instead of imagining blobs of “lab meat” expanding in petri dishes, we should picture clean-meat factories with rows of culturing vats, resembling breweries where, he likes to point out, we already rely on cell cultivation without even thinking about it.
So, do we care, in the end, how the animals are saved, just as long as they are saved? Just the savings alone is driving the investment by the big meat companies into cellular agriculture. According to Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats, growing meat would reduce all the current inputs, time, fuel, land, and water use, in some cases by more than 90%. This is not even mentioning the elimination of pathogens that make millions of people sick every year. There is a hopeful promise from technology when applied to food that could render factory farms producing meat as obsolete. When examined further we find that virtually every food we eat now is a product of science. Even that clean, local, artisanal carrot has been impacted by science.
As a vegan, I don’t enjoy eating simulated meats. I have no interest in a bolognese sauce with ground “meat” and I have no desire to try Impossible Meat’s Impossible Burger. That’s because I don’t want to eat animal flesh, even if it’s not really animal flesh. But I applaud companies like Memphis Meats, Impossible Meats, Hampton Creek, and others that are focused on, not the vegan, but the meat eater. They want meat eaters to switch from slaughtered animals to their products. The goal is not to displace plant based meats, whether or not vegans eat it or not, these brands couldn’t care less, they want the mainstream meat eaters as their customers. And, in my opinion, that’s the only way to save the billions of animals raised, abused, and slaughtered every year. It might feel like a loss even though we get what we want. Funny how that works.