Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists

Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007

What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?

Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.

Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?

Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”


Using pig stem cells, scientists have been growing lab meat for years, and it could be hitting deli counters sooner than you think.

Early attempts produced less-than-enticing results. Then, in 2001, scientists at New York’s Touro College won funding from NASA to improve in vitro farming. Hoping to serve something, well, beefier than kelp on moon bases and Mars colonies, the scientists successfully grew goldfish muscle in a nutrient broth. And, in 2003, a group of hungry artists from the University of Western Australia grew kidney bean-size steaks from biopsied frogs and prenatal sheep cells.

Today, scientists funded by companies such as Stegeman, a Dutch sausage giant, are fine-tuning the process. It takes just two weeks to turn pig stem cells, or myoblasts, into muscle fibers. “It’s a scalable process,” says Jason Matheny of New Harvest, a meat substitute research group. “It would take the same amount of time to make a kilogram or a ton of meat.” One technical challenge: Muscle tissue that has never been flexed is a gooey mass, unlike the grained texture of meat from an animal that once lived. The solution is to stretch the tissue mechanically, growing cells on a scaffold that expands and contracts. This would allow factories to tone the flaccid flesh with a controlled workout.

It seems clear that the animal-rights reasons disappear. If vegetarians eat broccoli and squash, but not beef and pork, because vegetables aren’t sentient creatures, and animals are, then giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks aren’t sentient either. No animal is suffering in the factory “growing” of these sheets, and no animal feels pain or dies as one of these sheets is pulled from the scaffolding that holds it.

The health objection probably remains open for a while, as it does with any manufactured or genetically rearranged food. Quite possibly, “organic” “growers” of meat sheets will come into being, using pure spring water and other nutrients, and not altering the meat cells as they develop. In moderation, meat doesn’t clog most people’s arteries or seriously raise cholesterol, and as a source of concentrated proteins it has health benefits that vegetarians manage to do without.

The environmental objections probably disappear more quickly; in fact, factory racks of gray sheets of meat may have less impact on the environment than paddies of rice or even fields of wheat.

For my own part, I’ve never objected to killing a small number of animals for food, if they were reared in ways that give them a reasonably full life that’s without avoidable suffering. Many members of the animal kingdom kill other animals for food, and humans are one of them. To object to killing animals on principle always struck me as a way of setting humans apart from the natural world in a way that religion does, with equally irrational consequences.

In talking with vegetarians over the years, many seem to object to consuming meat because of these religious-like reasons. They don’t say that, and hitherto they haven’t had to. That objection obviously still stands, but now they will have to be made explicit. My guess is we’ll see a fair amount of sputtering and circumlocution as many vegetarians are forced to rethink their fundamental beliefs. I’ll be one of them, though not for the religious reason. In my case, it’s just that longstanding habits of thought and behavior are hard to break. Grilled meat never stopped smelling good, but it also somehow came to smell quite gross at the same time. I’d probably gag on my first gray meat sheet.

Currently costing around $100,000 per kilogram, a choice cut of lab meat makes Kobe beef seem like a bargain. But meat-processing companies hope to start selling affordable factory-grown pork in under a decade. Bon appétit.

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24 Responses to “Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I think I would fairly happily eat the non-sentient meat.

    Your distinction, however, might better be termed “animal rights vs. animal welfare”. I don’t think the “on principle” folks position is exactly “spiritual” in a lot of these cases, but some idea that there are “inherent rights” that they see more like natural physical laws, than anything classically spiritual.

    I would agree the false we-are-separate-from-nature distiction is illogical, I guess my understanding of what people mean by spiritual may be different. And I’m not sure all animal rights people are making that disticntion. Although I don’t adhere to the “princple” or “rights” position myself, I’m don’t see that it requires a separation of onesellf from nature? One could, for instance, argue that such moral principles apply to groundhogs or even carrots, which I suspect are not considered separate from nature.

  2. Blue Athena said

    identification as a supporter of animal rights, when, in fact, I would guess you are an animal welfarist.

  3. Is the “inherent rights” position that animals have a right to not be killed and eaten? If so, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be an obligation for humans to police the Serengeti and keep the lions from chasing down the gazelles? But I’ve never heard any vegetarian or animal-rights activist argue for anything that.

    I agree that “spiritual” might not be the best word here. What should we call the position that it’s okay for lions to kill deer or a wild boar for food but humans must not?

  4. Blue Athena said

    I think there are a few varieties of this, and some of them may be a bit “spiritual”. But the ones I have heard off the top of my head are more like:

    1. Animals that don’t need meat don’t have the right to eat meat. Humans don’t need meat, therefore they shouldn’t eat it.

    2. Animals (or sentient beings) have a right to enjoy their life to it’s fullest. Accidents or ignorance (in the case of lower animals) may get in the way, but otherwise it should be avoided. Humans aren’t ignorant. They therefore shouldn’t eat meat.

    But yeah, I do think a lot of these folks separate themselves from nature. Pretty much anyone who uses the word “nature” is guilty of this (what else is it but a term of differentiation?). I just don’t know that it is necessary to their position (I use that term hesitantly, since I’m not sure they all really have a thought out position).

    Hmmm…I just realised that last post got cut off. I think how I started was something like “I guess I would question your self identification…”

  5. Simon said

    The question would remain that if there is enough plant based foodstuffs to feed the world’s population then is the extra effort justified in creating factory farmed meat slabs?

    The most philosophically sound argument for not killing animals has little to do with the killing and more to do with an animals interests, human animals included. Creating a line between species is an arbitrary distinction and is no different than creating a distinction between people of different skin or eye colors. When we look for characteristics that make a being valuable we notice a few, and many of these are shared by human and nonhuman animals alike. Sentience is primary, the ability to feel happiness and distress also. Then we come to the ability to conceive of oneself spatio temporally; that is we can project an image of ourselves as we are now onto the future, we are self conscious. Self conscious beings, therefore, have an interest in their future.

    We can claim that animals in Africa eat meat and so does my sister’s dog but should that mean that we all should eat meat or that these animals are immoral? Looking at a non-arbitrary classification system, like mentioned above, we can see that these animals are not rational beings; they are not self conscious. These animals do not have the ability to choose what they eat whereas rational beings do. My sister’s dog ate her husband’s vomit, should we all begin eating vomit?

    When we talk about equal consideration of interests we do not mean that all people have a quantifiably equal value but that the consequences are equal. If a quantifiably equal system were created then yes, either African animals would be wrong or we would be wrong. Likewise either all animals would need to take part in voting, for example, or we would have to abandon voting. This is not what is advocated.

    Looking at the above value system it is clear that some animals will be ‘less’ valuable than others and some may say that this is speciest. It is not. It does not create a value distinction by virtue of membership of a species but by certain valuable characteristics. Not all humans may be self conscious too.

    I don’t want to take up all of your comments section so I’ll leave it there. Nice post too.

  6. Thought-provoking commment, Simon, thanks for taking the time. Especially interesting is the question of vomit. I’ve never thought about it before, but is it more than a prejudice? I would bet real money that vomit was eaten in concentration camps. Perhaps there’s some risk attached; that’s true of unfiltered water when camping, and yet sometimes we risk that too.

    As far as I know, my cats have some sense of the future—they start pacing for more food before they’re really hungry; dogs certainly know when they’re about to be punished. I see differences in degree more than kind; nor do I think it matters to the question at hand any more than that some people can learn calculus and others cannot. Isn’t the ability to feel fear all one needs to merit the protection of vegetarianism?

  7. Simon said

    Yes, the possession of sentience is all that is needed for this argument. The ability to feel pleasure and pain is a consequence of this.

  8. Blue Athena said

    Hi Simon:
    “The most philosophically sound argument for not killing animals has little to do with the killing and more to do with an animals interests, human animals included.”

    I agree, and that’s why I tend to call it animal welfare rather than animal rights. “Rights” is just a word with too many different meanings (legal, religious, metaphysical). I think people tend to talk past onne another when using this term.

    “The question would remain that if there is enough plant based foodstuffs to feed the world’s population then is the extra effort justified in creating factory farmed meat slabs?”

    This is an important question from an environmental and economic standpoint. In part it depends on your opinion about the usefulness of meat in the human diet. It is clear, for instance, that you will not get adequate vitamin B12 without consuming either meat or vitamins. So you need to compare the expenditures on creating the artifical “meat” to that of producing the vitamins. Assuming the new non-sentient meat contains the same nutrients.

    And the question applies further to other meat based nutrients we have not yet identified that are necessary for human health. The vegetarian fundamentalist won’t often even consider that meat has health benefits, but if you’ve actually been a vegetarian long enough to suffer B12 deficiency, you know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t because you took vitamins, you may want to look into what goes into their production in the way of labor and resources.

    And would people eat the same amount of this non-sentient meat as they eat currently of regular meat. I should not be necessary to consume such quantities as are currrently consumed in the average western diet. So you could have a compromise position, with the average person generally eating less meat, but consuming smaller quantities of the non-sentient meat.

    And also there arises the question of whether this non-sentient meat could offer a stepping stone for people to wean themselves from their taste for meat. A way to temporarily cause less suffering in a step that is easier for the average person to take.

    I don’t know that any of these is necessary, just things to think out since I don’t feel the decision is all that clear cut.

  9. Simon said

    I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the necessity of meat eating. I spend a lot of my time in India and many of my friends and famaily there have never eaten meat their entire lives, neither any family members of theirs going back for multiple generations; hundreds and possibly thousands of years. When we go to the doctor to get our bloods done we are never lacking in anything. If meat is a necessary part of the human diet then how do entire generations of humans live without lacking any fundamental dietary requirements on a plant based diet?

    Also, even if I may be a little more healthy by eating meat, does that make me justified in doing so? If it becomes known that eating human flesh, for example, gives one more b12, for example, then am I justified in eating humans? Adrenaline makes sports people perform better so would it be justified in torturing animals to death so they produce adrenaline, which subsequently becomes present in their flesh, to feed to the sports people to give them a better chance of success?

    Why or why not?

  10. Lara said

    Just to nitpick a little on the B12, you don’t require meat. Any food of animal origin suffices, including eggs, milk products (or breastmilk from a B12-replete mother), etc. Or the manure on mushrooms, some say, though its reliability as a sole source is in question:

    http://www.vegsoc.org/info/b12.html

    http://www.veganhealth.org/b12/plant

    Of course, since there are good supplements available, the question is pretty much moot. In addition, the body can store enough vitamin B12 for 3-5 years, so there is a large buffer there for variable diets.

  11. Blue Athena said

    Simon, you ask:

    “Also, even if I may be a little more healthy by eating meat, does that make me justified in doing so? If it becomes known that eating human flesh, for example, gives one more b12, for example, then am I justified in eating humans?”

    But since the question here is of eating non-sentient beings, I think it’s not really the same comparison. It’s more like if automobiles (which polute the environment) get you to the hospital faster, is it worth taking them? You’re talking about an environmental issue.

    Although I do think the other question is interesting in a general sense. If it turned out (purely theoretically) that humans could not survive without eating meat where would you stand?

    B12 deficiency is, by the way, believed by many to vary by race with northern Europeans at greatest risk. Differences also exist in requirements for vitamin D and other nutrients, so it may not be simple to generalize.

    However, a very quick scan of Indian media turned up this article (not itself the original research) from the Times of India placing B12 deficiency among vegetarians at 70%. I haven’t read this study, but most others I have seen indicate that B12 deficiency is, in fact, a problem in india, even if at lesser rates.

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/cms.dll/html/uncomp/articleshow?msid=780050

    Lara, I don’t think the B12 question is moot with regard to the non-sentient meat, unlless you can prove that vitamin production is less damaging to the environment than the production of non sentient meat.

    You are right on the B12, that was a typo. But if most non-vegan vegetarians actually calculate out their daily consumption they are very likely to find that the quantities fall far below recommended amounts. You would have to eat quite a few eggs a day to reach even the low US figures.

    daily requirement of B12 for adult females:2.4 MCG
    1 3 ounce serving of beef: 2.1 MCG
    1 egg: .4 mcg
    1 ounce of brie cheese: .5 mcg

    I don’t know many vegetarians eating 6 eggs a day, or 4 and a bit of cheese. It would sort of defeat the purpose for most.

    As for the mushrooms, if they did produce enough b12 (which they don’t) those cows would not be living in the wild and followed around by scavengers picking up their waste. That’s [factory] farmed cow dung on those mushrooms.

  12. Simon said

    Why is a nonhuman animal non sentient? What is it that makes all humans sentient? There is nothing. The species barrier is arbitrary. Am I justified in eating humans that don’t meet the requirements of sentience? If not then why not?

  13. Simon said

    If you read that paper by Wadia you’ll see that it refers to the percentage of vegetarians presenting at a particular clinic. You’ll also notice that those who were studied who didn’t present to the clinic in mention were selected from families that could not afford medical treatment. What is the likelihood that people who can’t afford to see a doctor will be able to afford a balanced and nutritious diet. For every paper that says there is a correlation between vegetarianism and B12 there seems to be another one either criticising the original or presenting its own findings with different conclusions.

    After reading through the comments here once again there seems to be an important question that is being avoided. Am I justified in farming, commercialising, and eating a moral agent just because it may make me more healthy? The article above introduced the concept of farmed meat slabs to get around the moral issue.

  14. Blue Athena said

    Simon wrote:

    “Why is a nonhuman animal non sentient? What is it that makes all humans sentient? There is nothing. The species barrier is arbitrary. Am I justified in eating humans that don’t meet the requirements of sentience? If not then why not?”

    Simon, did you actually read the original post on which this discussion is based? We are not discussing animals (sentient) but giant slabs of meat created in a lab. I will refrain from answering the rest of your commennts until I’m sure we are having the same conversation.

  15. I’d comment on all of this, but the sound of bacon crunching between my teeth as I devour my bacon, egg and cheese with sausage sandwich has totally distracted me. Maybe later when i dive into a quieter 1/2 lb burger I’ll have some insight.

  16. Blue Athena said

    Simon, I reread your posts and you clearly did read the article–sorry. So I’m not sure how you thought I was talking about animals being non-sentient, but apparently you did so perhaps I was unclear. By “non-sentient meat” I meant “meat that is not sentient”. Stuff created in a lab. I am personally of the opinion that anything with neurons, and possibly some without, is in varying degrees sentient. I think most vegetarians would accept this, and most meat eaters for that matter. I have never actually heard anyone (except in medieval texts) arguing to the contrary which is why your interpretation of what I said stopped me in my tracks. I think that the group of modern people of this opinion is so small as to be relatively trivial to the debate.

    I have spent a lot of time reading hundreds of scientific articles on B12, although admittedly only 10 or 20 a year in the last few years as my interest has moved on since recovering from the deficiency (and yes, I took occasional vitamins, although not large amounts and had mostly been lacto-ovo vegetarian with only short periods of veganism). I’m afraid I disagree with your claim that there are an equal number of articles on each side, unless you count what I would consider propaganda pieces of the vegetarian industry. (Remember that I have been a vegetarian over 20 years and was vegan part of that time. I support the ideas, but I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. I saw MANY doctors before I was diagnosed, largely because of the myth that “Only vegans get B12 deficiency unless there is a medical problem”. From my research this is simply not true.)

    There is an enormous tendency towards religiosity in the vegetarian community. What I mean by this is that vegetarian fundamentalists pick and choose their facts in the same way that Christian fundamentalists pick their facts to disprove evolution. People believe what they want to believe, and spread that information as fact. Babies are being born with permanent brain damage to vegan mothers and many vegetarians are living with lasting diminished health because they believe this bad data.

    Yes, it is a valid question whether you would eat meat if it would make you more heathy. There are reasons people will avoid this question, and they are very practical. The discussion will ultimately come down to whether or not you are willing to increase the suffering of non-human animals to continue the human race. It will then turn to whether you would eliminate the human race to further the welfare of animals. I, for the record, would not. Let me make clear…I support continuation of the human species.

    And people of the opposing position aren’t stupid enough to stand up and voice their opinion (most of the time, anyway) because it will likely lead to the loss of your job (yes, this has happened) and a record opened my your local secret service or national security force. It’s simply not a discussion that is going to take place.

    But let’s ask another question. If you were told (and this is a hypothetical) that you, yourself, would lose IQ points due to nerve damage if you didn’t eat meat, how many would you be willing to forfeit? Would you drop down 20? 50? 70? 100?

  17. What a great discussion!

    I should disclose that I was a strict vegan for less than four years, from 1990-1993, after which I added fish and shellfish to my diet. I wasn’t opposed to killing animals for food in and of itself (and my original post says as much).

    My objections have always been to the ways animals are reared, and especially with respect to the most developed animals, such as cows and pigs, how they are killed. I am also concerned for the large number of animals that are killed for food, compared to the very small role animal flesh should play in a healthy diet. (By that I mean that a large amount is actively harmful, not that any is necessarily needed for a healthy diet.)

    I’m not thrilled with some of the ways fish are reared (I’ve reduced the amount of shrimp I eat for this reason) and killed, so this has been something of a practical compromise, especially when I travel for business, during which I’ve found it very hard to avoid meat when you’re also avoiding dairy (which I’m very strict about) and also avoiding sugar (which I have to do for hypoglycemia).

    I have to say also, I may be overly pragmatic, but I’d be satisfied if the world ate substantially less and less meat and dairy from generation to generation, making continual progress until the few remaining farm animals led healthy, humane, more or less complete lives, even if they at the end lose them to the butcher block.

    In fact we’re seeing the reverse as more and more of the world moves to a largely animal-based diet. So discussions at the extreme end of the vegetarian continuum are interesting, and important, but somewhat irrelevant to what’s going on in the world today.

    There’s a difference between individual and societal morality, and I think each of us is obligated to make much more substantial progress, which is why I’ve eliminated almost all animal products from my diet. But my position makes it fairly easy to answer the B12 question and the other ones Athena asks.

  18. Simon said

    Thanks Blue Athena. When I said that there are equal amounts of journal articles on both sides I was being a bit general. I only spent about five hours yesterday having a look through and for every article that I found in that time claiming a lack of B12 and a link with diet (meat and/or veg) I found another one, or more, criticising the first in some way.

    My argument has more to do with an arbitrary distinction of species. When you say ‘The discussion will ultimately come down to whether or not you are willing to increase the suffering of non-human animals to continue the human race’ you don’t explain what it is that a human is and why this is valuable. All one can assume is that you believe that being human is valuable by virtue of species membership. Why make an arbitrary distinction like this? Why be speciesist? Other arbitrary distinctions like raceism and sexism are now seen as logically incoherent and so is an arbitrary distinction based on species.

    Now I’m not saying that we should treat humans as if they were animals here I’m just saying that there is more to being human than simply being human. If we isolate these characteristics we will find that some animals possess them and, also, some humans do not. Either we are ethically justified in treating these humans who do not possess these characteristics the same way we treat animals or we treat the animals the same way we treat the lower humans. There’s alot more to this argument too but I’ll just leave it there for now.

  19. ClaireDePlume said

    Reading this thread, I’ve not had this much fun since the cat ate my baby brother. But I digress…

    There’s always opinion and here’s one more to add to the baloney pile. I have all but eliminated meat (with exception for ~some~ types of fish and shellfish), along with dairy too. Why?

    No, not because it’s a spiritual choice, or a vegetarian stand against the evil meat oligopolies, but because it is a wise choice for my health. This decision though, does not alter my feelings toward the inhumane, violent methods in which animals are ‘farmed’ and slaughtered.

    We are most certainly what we eat, and when we take pause to witness the “quasi” sanity (not sante for sure)in our world, it is a sobering sight indeed. Fat, mad, slobbering omnivores – yes I’ve been driving on the freeway again – are running rampant. Could it be that delicious hormone-bolstered, toxin laden slab of animal protein dripping off the fangs of my fellow “humans” which makes them so testy?

    Some mad scientist growing faux meat on a petrie dish beside the milk and beer in his/her fridge makes me feel queasy. Somehow, this is reminiscent of nutra-sweet and margarine. In case of a world nut (the edible kind) famine and a vegetable rebellion, I am stockpiling my credit cards and intend to melt them down. The nutritious factor should be approximately equal to “porc ala petrie”.

  20. Stephanie said

    I haven’t eaten meat in over 15 years, and it hasn’t been a problem even though I live a very physically active lifestyle that includes daily aerobic exercise and weight training.

    I have mixed feelings over whether I would consume meat derived from the science of stem cells. If I could be assured that it was safe, as not malignant in some Frankstein-type way, I guess I would consider it.

    My question to you: if human flesh could also be grown in such a way, would you eat that, too? Because if you find consuming human meat somehow revolting or unethical, despite being derived in the same fashion that you would have vegetarians consume animal flesh, perhaps you can begin to understand the quandary many of us have over this idea.

  21. Now that’s a great question. I think that having a taboo against human flesh is a pretty good idea, and if we’re stuck in a concentration camp, I’d be glad to know that my fellow prisoners hadn’t developed a taste for human meat.

    On a practical level, humans have evolved eating cow, pig, horse, fowl, etc., but not eating human. So I wonder if we’d have all the right enzymes and so forth. The body could probably process human meat in a way similar to pig, but it is a question.

    So I think a distinction could be maintained about human vs animal slabs of meat. Sure, the first objection isn’t much different from a Papal “sanctity of human life” point of view, but they’re entitled to get it right once in a while.

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  23. digglahhh said

    In response to the “Fish I” post, we may as well revive this one too.

    I’m glad that Meta pointed it out because I don’t think I’ve ever read through it. There’s a lot of really good discussion here.

    For now, I’ll only add one thought. Regarding what differentiates man killing animal for food from a lion hunting a gazelle, I would contend that technology plays a big part in that discussion.

    If you had to hunt animals in the wild, beat them to death with your bare hands and drag their carcasses back to prepare the meat, you may decide the burger isn’t worth it, assuming you survive.

    Referring to our processes of rearing cattle as “man killing cattle” is a rather generous, if not disingenuous interpretation of how much of the labor man is actually doing.

    Man creates technology that enables man do these things safely and efficiently. Man’s technology also causes cancer, but do we refer to man as being the cause of cancer?…

  24. ClaireDePlume said

    We might be far sighted to suggest that Man IS the cause of cancer.

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