The Humane Research Council is an organization that works for the benefit of all animals, be they companions, wild, captive, feral, farmed, etc. We recognize the importance of moving the ball forward on all animal protection issues. From time to time in these posts, I make suggestions about how animal advocates should prioritize their efforts. In doing so, I never intend to take away from those who are working hard on other issues.
But when it comes to overall priorities for the U.S. animal protection movement, I think the following numbers are rather telling:
land animals killed for food per year 
This is obviously just a partial list, but you could keep adding stats for different animal issues and the overall picture would still look the same. Farmed animals represent the vast majority of animals who are abused and neglected at human hands. In fact, no other use of animals even comes close, unless perhaps you count wildlife habitat loss. The difference is starker yet when you consider that the number above includes only land-based animals; some past estimates have said more aquatic animals are killed for food than land animals, particularly when you include “bycatch.”
The Meat of the Matter
The human propensity to breed, raise, and slaughter animals for food therefore results in the majority of animal suffering the world over, simply based on the numbers. Farmed animal advocacy is increasingly and deservingly becoming better funded and more sophisticated, with multiple prongs including legislation, litigation, and vegetarian/vegan outreach. These efforts -- such as the recent ballot initiatives eliminating cages, crates, and tethers -- are big and important wins for animals; but they represent only modest reductions in suffering. In vitro meat, on the other hand, has the ability to make raising animals for food unnecessary, possibly even unacceptable.
That’s gotta be at least as exciting as Oprah going vegan for three weeks, right? One might think so, but while the mainstream media lately has been giving some coverage to in vitro meat, animal advocates seem more interested in the transient food choices of diet-obsessed celebrities. My goal with this article is to encourage more advocates to at least think about the potential for in vitro meat to save billions of animals from their lives of misery. This will be a very big deal for farmed animals, despite the scientific and business challenges lab-grown meat will face coming to market.
I am certainly no tissue engineer. My knowledge of science resides firmly and almost exclusively in the social realm, but it suffices to say that in vitro meat is still undergoing development. An international consortium of scientists is working hard to solve issues like finding an animal-free (and cost-effective) growth medium and designing “scaffolding” to replicate various meat textures. The U.S.-based nonprofit New Harvest has been established to guide and fund further research efforts, with the specific goal of making the products commercially competitive with traditional meat products.
Due to the scientifically driven design, in vitro meat has a number of potential advantages over traditional meat. According to the New Harvest website, “A big advantage of cultivated meat over the meat industry is of course that it is animal friendly: only the stem cells come from an animal... (it) could have the additional advantage of allowing one to control the fat content or improve the ratio of good fats to bad fats. And the danger for infection is lower, because the bioreactors can be kept sterile, unlike animal farms and slaughterhouses.” These human health benefits are of course above and beyond the immense benefit to farmed animals.
The first question that people invariably ask about in vitro meat is, “would anybody actually eat this stuff?” The presumed answer is usually “no,” but on this issue I am a confident contrarian. From a commercial standpoint, lab meat will probably remain a small niche for many years to come; this will be in part due to time spent improving the science, but also due to initial resistance from the agribusiness industry. Eventually, however, the economic benefits of producing meat in vitro vs. on the farm animal will become undeniable even for companies like Tyson Foods and ConAgra.
An interesting analogy is the initial resistance of big car manufacturers to electric and hybrid engines, which quashed development of alternative vehicles for decades. Even before being green became so cool, however, the car companies were coming around. In vitro meat will likely face the same kind of resistance from big agriculture, but its large-scale benefits are clear and the writing is on the wall. Additionally, the current pressures of climate change and the fact that animal agriculture is its largest single contributor (according to the UN) may pressure farming companies to adapt more quickly.
The question is, how long will this process take? I may have a business degree, but unfortunately I don’t have the answer other than my own suppositions. Animal farming is undeniably a messy business, and over time I think that producers are likely to welcome a cleaner, less controversial process to putting meat on the table. As partial motive, consider the PR benefit of putting an end to methane from gassy cows, manure lagoons created by pig farms, and undercover investigations showing cruel acts. Lab meat will allow agriculture companies to avoid these problems altogether, although it may take them decades to shift their inertia from traditional meat to in vitro products.
How can animal advocates help these changes come about more quickly? Start by keeping the issue on your radar and monitoring the developments of in vitro meat. If you have the means, contribute to New Harvest (with which I have no affiliation) to help fund more research. Most importantly, when these products start coming to market, support them in every way that you can. Like the growth in vegetarian and vegan products that we see in the market today, the speed of change will depend in large part on the speed with which animal-based alternatives are brought to market.
Do you have other ideas or do you disagree with promoting in vitro meat? We’d love to hear your comments... registered users are invited to click "add new comment" below.