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Ethical Meat Can't Solve the Problem of Animal Cruelty (Podcast)
From grass-fed beef to lab-grown meat, "ethical" meat is pitched as a solution to our food system's problems. Here's why it can't work.
I disagree with my friend and journalist Leighton Woodhouse on many things: policing, homelessness, and appropriate responses to climate change. But one of the most surprising disagreements that was revealed, in a conversation we had this weekend, was on the question of “ethical” meat.
Leighton is a dedicated animal rights supporter. He’s covered some of the most important issues relating to the movement in the past decade, from so-called ag-gag laws, which make it a crime to take photographs in factory farms, to the rising use of civil disobedience to bring attention to animal abuse. To this day, one of my favorite all-time videos on animal rights is a profile Leighton did of Priya Sawhney, a dear friend who has co-founded multiple organizations with me, and who personifies the rising boldness of the movement:
But despite Leighton’s history supporting grassroots animal rights efforts, he’s not confident that social movements will be enough to solve the problem of animal cruelty. Most of his hope lies, instead, in lab-grown meat. The average human beings, Leighton believes, simply will not change his dietary practices, no matter how much we attempt to educate them. So our best hope is to replace meat from animals with a truly ethical form: grown from a vat, rather than a sentient being.
As you can hear from our conversation, I’m skeptical of this approach. For one, lab-grown meat won’t solve the many other ways that animals are exploited: for their fur, as experiments, or as nuisances to be exterminated in the wild. I have said before that, while my current focus is factory farming, I have bigger fish to save. The suffering of a single species of deep sea animal, the bristlemouth fish, probably outweighs all the animals killed in factory farms in a single year. (Indeed, it may outweigh all the farmed animal suffering in history!) A solution to the mass torture and extermination of animals, then, requires a realignment in our political system and not just a replacement of one set of products.
For another, lab-grown meat seems to have a serious problem with scale. The Counter recently published a deep dive into the subject and came to a very pessimistic conclusion:
Open Philanthropy—a multi-faceted research and investment entity with a nonprofit grant-making arm, which is also one of GFI’s biggest funders—completed a much more robust TEA of its own, one that concluded cell-cultured meat will likely never be a cost-competitive food. David Humbird, the UC Berkeley-trained chemical engineer who spent over two years researching the report, found that the cell-culture process will be plagued by extreme, intractable technical challenges at food scale. In an extensive series of interviews with The Counter, he said it was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end.”
Lab-grown meat, however, is just one of many ways to make the consumption of animals “ethical.” And these methods have attracted a numerous and even passionate following. The vegan New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, in a recent podcast, mentions that he finds some forms of animal consumption ethical. But the allure of all these approaches is a false one. When one dives deeper into the merits of each approach to “ethical” meat consumption, one realizes that they are, at best, distractions from real solutions. At worst, they are intentional schemes to prevent change.
Let’s go through some of the primary ways that our culture has attempted to make meat “ethical.”
Meat from farms with high welfare standards
When Ezra Klein says that he does not find meat inherently unethical, this is what he is mostly talking about. Imagine a pig who lives a happy and idyllic life. After years of joy, he’s slaughtered quickly and painlessly.
This is the most common source of so-called "ethical” meat, and the one with the most popular support. While most Americans condemn animal cruelty, 75% of US adults say they usually buy animal products “from animals that are treated humanely” and 58% think that “most farmed animals are treated well.”
The problem with this, first, is that these beliefs are grounded in a lie. As I’ve previously written, the single largest organic poultry producer in the nation is an outright fraud, marketing its products as free range while stuffing thousands of birds in the same industrial sheds as any other factory farm. Indeed, even the single highest rated farm in the entire Whole Foods supply chain — Diestel Turkey Ranch — was revealed to be using a fake farm for marketing purposes, as our video from 2015 shows:
The other problem with high welfare standards, however, is that it’s based on a false understanding of the moral value of animals’ lives. For many years, neuroscientists believed that human beings were unique in our ability to imagine the future. Indeed, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert turned this concept into a best-selling book on happiness.
This belief has now been discredited, in part by fascinating research involving a chimp at a Swedish zoo. In the morning, the chimp would gather rocks near the area where visitors would gather in the afternoon, to gawk at him and the other primates. The chimp did so because he knew that, when the visitors arrived, they would likely agitate and anger him — and he’d need rocks to throw. The ability of this chimp to plan for a future emotional state showed that he was able to imagine himself in the future. And if chimps — and perhaps other animals — can imagine their future selves, then killing them (even if painlessly) is doing them harm. You are taking away a future that they’ve already planned for.
But even if animals lack the ability to plan for the future, what of it? Why does an animal’s inability to see their future, justify taking that future away? Imagine something much less important than life, e.g., money, being taken away. Say that a child was bequeathed a million dollars by their dead parent, but was too young to understand this had happened. Say someone stole that money away, unbeknownst to anyone, including the child, and that no one ever discovered the crime. Does that somehow make it ok? The child did not plan for the money. The child did not even know about it. Taking the money, however, is still wrong.
For the same reason, even a painless killing of animal, who cannot envision their future, can’t be justified. Once an animal has come into existence, its future belongs only to himself or herself. High welfare standards may reduce an animal’s suffering but they do not solve the moral problem with taking an animal’s life.
Reducing meat consumption
Another way to make meat ethical is to reduce its consumption. The idea behind this movement, which is often described as reduceitarianism, is that we cannot let perfection be the enemy of the good. It is highly unrealistic to expect most people to give up meat, so better to focus on creating an ethical meat system that is simply much smaller in scale. There are entire conferences and organizations, in fact, committed to this idea, and attempting to build a movement behind it.
The folks pushing this idea are well-intentioned, good people. And I am generally supportive of their efforts. The basic problem with reduceitarianism, however, is that it mostly takes the consumption of animals out of the moral domain. If eating animals is wrong, after all, rather than simply unwise, why would it be ok to eat some animals, but not a lot? Moral norms, in turn, are some of the most powerful forces in history, driving entire civilizations to great change (and sometimes, conflict). It’s why human beings have been described as “the moral animal.” Turning the eating of animals into a moral non-issue seems to be the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve!
Reducing meat consumption, then, is a good thing but not a movement-wide strategy to solve the problem of animal cruelty.
A last category of ethical meat is expensive meat, i.e., meat that accounts for all the various environmental and ethical concerns in its cost. Ezra Klein, in his recent podcast, makes this a focus of his conversation. If only we could include within the price of meat the animal cruelty and other “externalities” — i.e., hidden costs that are not paid by producers or consumers — in its production, perhaps the problem with our meat system would be solved. Indeed, if meat were 10 or even 100 times more expensive than its current prices, perhaps it would just disappear from our economic system entirely.
The problem with expensive meat, as an ethical alternative to our current system, is that it suffers from the same “moral crowding out” problem as reduceitarianism. Indeed, there is evidence that, when you put a price on wrongful behavior, it can encourage people to do it more! The classic study in economics involved parents at a daycare center. When parents were charged for being late to pick up their kids, they started doing it more often! The reason is that the preexisting moral norm (that picking up your kids late made you a bad parent) was replaced by an amoral norm (that picking up your kids was not morally wrong, but just a little more expensive).
There’s another, bigger problem with using the price mechanism to account for ethical harms: markets aren’t capable of properly valuing non-monetary harms, like the loss of life. This is why we subject corporations to regulation, when it comes to issues like safety, rather than mere taxation. How much is a child’s life worth? How much should it cost a company if it causes cancer in 1% of a community? These are notoriously difficult problems, even for the world’s most important economic experts, and there is no obvious mechanism that can translate these harms into prices. Instead, we rely on regulation (and democracy) to manage these harms.
The same should be true of the harms caused by killing animals for food. Because there are so many non-monetary factors at play — not just the cruelty to animals, but the danger to human beings posed by practices such as antibiotic usage — expensive meat won’t be an effective solution.
So now you’ve heard from me. Ethical meat, whether lab-grown or from “humane” farms, can’t solve the problems posed by animal agriculture. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. What do you think of these approaches? Am I missing something? Leave a comment or write back to me by email!