Is Clean Meat the Future of Veganism?

Introduction

Clean meat is one of several, names for meat that has been grown from cells, in a clean, sterilised, and controlled environment. The only involvement it has with an animal is the original collection of a tissue sample, which is both pain and harmless. I’ll briefly explain how it’s produced, address the concerns that surround clean meat, and then talk about how it relates to veganism and what role, if any, it has in the movement.

How Clean Meat is Produced

A brief disclaimer, I am not a biologist so I’m not at all qualified to explain in any more detail how the process works, but to my understanding it is something like this (1) :

  1. Take a tissue sample from a living animal (worth reiterating, this does not harm the animal)
  2. Isolate the cells you want
    1. You want ones with a high rate of proliferation (cell reproduction rate)
  3. Treat the cells with a protein that encourages tissue growth
  4. Place them in a culture medium which provides them with the necessary energy they need to grow

The 4 Reasons Not to Eat Clean Meat

In polls about clean meat, four concerns are commonly cited as reasons why one might not swap out traditionally farmed meat for clean meat. They are that it might be unsafe, less healthy, more expensive, and that it is creepy or unnatural. I will address each in turn below.

Safety

The meat is grown in a highly controlled, and sterile environment, and the process itself doesn’t produce or create any new risk, so there is no reason to think that clean meat would be less safe for consumption. However, there are a number of reasons why it is actually a lot safer than farmed meat.

Firstly, most animals consumed today are kept in conditions whereby they defecate and often die in proximity to each other, and as such they are riddled with diseases. To combat this, we give them a lot of antibiotics. In the USA for example, 70% of antibiotics produced are given to animals (2), leading to antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can spread from animals to humans. For example, in China in 2015, it was found that there were bacteria that were resistant to colistin, a last ditch antibiotic that was purposefully reserved for eliminating bacteria that were resistant to more common antibiotics. Its use had been intentionally limited to prevent bacteria building up this resistance. The reason then, that bacteria became resistant to colistin, was that it had been given to livestock for years (3). Antibiotic is no small matter, the CDC estimates that 25,000 deaths in the EU and 20,000 and in the USA are caused by antibiotic resistance (4). By removing the animal from the production process, you remove the use of antibiotics. It is also worth noting that living in proximity to livestock is dangerous as it makes it possible for diseases to spread from them to us (think bird flu). This health concern is of course is also removed by removing the animal from the production of meat.

Even if you were to ensure the meat you consumed came from farms where each animal had acres of space to itself, and was far from a human population, there is still the risk of contamination of the animal from fecal material and the guts when it is slaughtered. This again is not inconsequential at all, most deaths from food borne illness in the USA are from the contamination of meat (5). Again, by removing the animal, in the case specifically the killing of the animal, you remove the risk. With clean meat you would not have to worry about the likes of salmonella, e-coli etc. Of course if you left the food out unrefrigerated it may spoil, but that is also true of vegetables so hardly a contentious point.

Clearly it can be seen that farmed meat creates a lot of health risks that are not present in clean meat, so it is in fact significantly safer as a means of production that its traditional alternative. This makes sense considering it is a lot easier to control a laboratory environment than it is a farm or slaughterhouse.

Health

The end product is identical, at the cellular level. So considering only the end product there is no difference between clean and farmed meat. There is health benefit to clean meat however, being that you can control the level of protein and fat in the meat. So it can be made to be more protein dense, or lower the amount of cholesterol or saturated fat, or increase the amount of better fats like omega 3 (which to be fair to the meat industry is already done to an extent by feeding animals different foods).

Price

Currently, there are no clean meat products available for purchase in the UK, so the price is unknown. As of 2016, one company producing clean meat, Memphis Meats, quotes their meat as costing $40 per gram, but they anticipate it will be reduced to the same price as farmed meat by 2021. Given more time, it is almost a certainty that the price will be significantly lower than farmed meat, which makes sense when you consider how insanely energy inefficient normal meat production is. It takes approximately 23 calories of grain to make 1 calorie of beef mince, compared with 3 calories of energy to make 1 calorie of clean beef mince. When you consider think of all of the steps involved in the production of traditional meat, this finding is hardly surprising. It is also worth noting that meat production is heavily subsidised and given tax breaks by the government to keep the cost low. This will not be sustainable as the global population is expected to rise by up to 3 billion, especially in the parts of the world that currently consume very little or no meat. (6) 

Clean Meat is Creepy or Unnatural

This line of reasoning is problematic on two accounts. Firstly, just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean that it is good, to claim such would be an appeal to nature fallacy. For example consider cholera, malaria, cancer or aids, these are all diseases or infections found in nature and are extremely natural, does that make them good? Of course not, something is good because the benefits of it outweigh the harms. Secondly, even if something being natural was a meaningful reason to buy, or not to buy, farmed meat is far from natural. The animals we eat have been selectively bred so that they are more efficient to farm, and consequently they differ enormously from their wild ancestors. For example, chickens grow 6-7 times faster, cows produce up to 10 times more milk, and turkey are often so top heavy they can barely stand up (7). In summary then, whether or not something is natural shouldn’t affect your decision, but even if it did clean meat is no less natural than the farmed meat we eat today.

A Note on the Environment

It’s worth also considering the benefit switching to clean meat would have on the environment. The damage animal agriculture does to the environment is well documented, and although producing the clean meat would still require substantial laboratories/factories if done on a large scale, it is still over 7 times more energy efficient, almost infinitely more land and water efficient, and eliminate all of the methane emissions that arise from the livestock (methane is 30 times as potent when it comes to trapping heat compared with CO2) (8).

Summary

Picture the scene in a few years time when clean meat is on the shelves in the supermarket, and is the same price (or likely cheaper) compared with meat from an animal. The food you actually eat is identical down to the cell, but has no risk of carrying salmonella or any other food borne disease, didn’t contribute to antibiotic resistance, and had a massively reduced impact on the planet. What reason could you possibly have for choosing the traditionally grown meat over this? It would be sadistic to reject all of these benefits to choose the option that causes the suffering and death of an animal. To choose the clean meat you would change nothing at your end, but there would be untold benefits for the animals and the environment, you lose nothing. 

Clean Meat & Veganism

The point of veganism is to end the exploitation and suffering of animals. In the production of clean meat, no animal is exploited, nor suffers, to produce the product. It is by definition vegan, and it has the potential to do so much good. The reason almost everyone who chooses not to go vegan does so is they don’t want to stop eating meat for a cause they don’t believe in. Vegans then spend most of their time trying to convince people that it is a cause they should believe in. A lot of effort does also go into trying to make people realise that going vegan is easy and not a sacrifice, and fake meat products try to make this easier. But clean meat is more than just a really good fake meat, it has the potential to open up the movement on a new level, making it so much easier to convince people to go vegan because they don’t even have to stop eating meat. If you can keep eating meat and still be vegan, all of a sudden swapping out cows milk for soya, and just dropping eggs doesn’t seem like such a big step anymore. 

People think that it is hard to go vegan, and they can’t picture themselves not eating meat. They believe it would never happen for them, and so even though they might really agree with the arguments presented, they recognise that to concede to them would make them hypocritical and so consequently they reject the argument on whatever premise comes to mind. This is the cause of so many of the intellectually dishonest and laughable arguments that are presented in defense of meat consumption. They aren’t about trying to convince the other person they are about trying to convince yourself, which is very easy to do. Clean meat makes picturing life as a vegan so much easier. If you don’t have to give up meat or fish, all of a sudden the supposed dark cloud over a vegan lifestyle is gone, and now you can imagine it happening it is easier to be honest about why you should. A lot of vegans who became one for health or environmental reasons can attest to this point, they may not have originally agreed with or cared about the ethics, but once they were vegan it became a lot easier to see the justification for their cause. Non-vegans need the arguments against veganism as a barrier, because veganism is something people don’t want to do, it’s seen as a sacrifice. Vegans are constantly trying to convince others that it isn’t a sacrifice, but regardless of whether they’re right it is undeniably a change. Clean meat presents the possibility of removing this change, and therefore removing the biggest obstacle stopping people from going vegan.

Vegans have got to get on the right side of this, it doesn’t mean they have to start consuming it themselves, but they need to encourage non vegans to try it, encourage their vegan restaurants to sell it, and remove any stigma or uncertainty that might surround it. Clean meat is vegan, and if anything is going to be the catalyst that ends animal agriculture, it’s this. 

Notes

  1. How clean meat is made https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultured_meat
  2. 70% of antibiotics are given to animals https://amr-review.org/sites/default/files/Antimicrobials%20in%20agriculture%20and%20the%20environment%20-%20Reducing%20unnecessary%20use%20and%20waste.pdf
  3. Video on antibiotic resistance and colistin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZbcwi7SfZE
  4. Deaths from antibiotic resistance https://www.cdc.gov/globalhealth/infographics/antibiotic-resistance/antibiotic_resistance_global_threat.htm
  5. Death from food borne illness https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/5/5/99-0502_article
  6. Government subsidies for meat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#European_Union
  7. In 2016 Sam Harris had the founder of Memphis Meats, Uma Valeti, on his podcast to talk about clean meat. That podcast heavily influenced this post, and is where these statistics are from. https://samharris.org/podcasts/meat-without-murder/
  8. Methane is bad https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327111724.htm

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