Updated: Sep 1, 2022
What is the most realistic way to achieve animal-free food worldwide? Getting everyone to switch to a plant-based diet will be a huge challenge. History tells us that switching people to cultivated meat – that is, meat grown from stem cells – might be a lot easier.
By Stijn Bruers
What's cooking, chef? (Photo: Edward Jenner/Pexels)
1894. London is facing a serious environmental problem: the great horse manure crisis. England’s countryside has been transformed into a gigantic hay barn, but all that horse feed has ended up on the streets in the form of manure. New York is also burdened by the pressure of horse-drawn carriages. The horseshoes make an infernal noise, the horses do not always listen to the driver, and they succumb to fatigue. Children play in the street among the carcasses of horses.
Although everyone acknowledged in 1894 that horse-drawn carriages caused serious problems, no one believed that horses would ever disappear from the streets. Cycling was too tiring, and the recently invented car was far too expensive.
That was at the end of the 19th century. A decade later, Henry Ford launched his Model T. New methods of mass production made the car very cheap, and it sold quickly. The horse-drawn carriage industry could not compete. Within five decades, horse use dropped ten-fold, without any actions by animal activists, environmental campaigns, or government regulation.
It didn’t stop there. Whaling also plummeted with the invention of kerosene for oil lamps. Millions of carrier pigeons were no longer held in captivity due to the invention of the telegraph and telephone. Sheep farming declined drastically following the arrival of nylon synthetic fibres. The use of pigs for insulin production was discontinued through genetically engineered bacteria that produce human insulin. Rabbits for cosmetic testing were replaced by human skin cell cultures.
And in the film industry, we see the digitization of animals: in 1978, Clint Eastwood was still acting next to a real Orangutan (in Every Which Way But Loose), while by 2020 Harrison Ford was sitting next to a computer-animated dog (in The Call of the Wild); after all, teaching a real dog to bark and walk at the same time is more difficult.
Whaling plummeted with the invention of kerosene for oil lamps. Sheep farming declined drastically following the arrival of nylon synthetic fibres.
For ten thousand years we have been exploring the technology landscape, the space of all possible technologies. Because we had a lot of contact with animals, we soon started using them in our technologies, for food, transport, communication, medicines, entertainment and so on.
But that forest of animal technologies in the technology landscape is quite small. Because animals were created by slow, blind evolution, they are not optimised to fit our technologies. We are constantly inventing new, animal-free technologies that are more effective. Today, we are already much further advanced in the technology landscape and on much higher mountain peaks.
In all areas, animals are being replaced by animal-free technologies, which are becoming more and more efficient. The same is happening in agriculture. In the past, animals were needed to keep the fields fertile and to process inedible food residues. They were also needed in our diets to provide essential proteins, minerals and vitamins. But in the meantime, we have discovered healthier and more animal-friendly alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs. Completely vegan diets have become possible today.
In all areas, animals are being replaced by animal-free technologies, which are becoming more and more efficient.
Global livestock farming creates new infectious diseases such as swine and bird flu, causes food scandals, consumes three quarters of antibiotics, occupies three quarters of farmland, uses one third of pesticides and emits one seventh of greenhouse gases. Livestock farming is dangerous for both public health and the environment.
A recent study published in Nature points to a strongly underexposed benefit of veganism. If we were to eat vegan globally, almost a billion hectares of farmland would be freed up for spontaneous reforestation. Those forests could absorb more than half of all the CO2 fossil fuels have released into the atmosphere and oceans since the industrial revolution. With a vegan diet, you avoid the emission of 1 tonne of CO2 equivalents per year, and you can also capture another 6 tonnes of CO2 per year through reforestation. By comparison, an average person on Earth emits about 7 tonnes of CO2 per year. This makes animal-free food possibly one of the most effective climate measures available.
So the question arises: what is the cheapest way to achieve animal-free food worldwide? Convincing yourself to eat vegan costs nothing, but campaigns to raise awareness and encourage others to cut down on meat are not free of charge. We can protest against the livestock industry, but it will resist.
The challenge lies with traditional meat eaters, who are not open to messages such as “eat vegan” or “go vegan”. Such messages give the impression that one needs to learn new things (such as vegan cooking) and change one’s behaviour and identity (become a vegan). This meets with psychological resistance.
A vegan diet helps avoid the emission of 1 tonne of CO2 equivalents per year. This makes animal-free food one of the most effective climate measures available.
Technological innovations in food science will soon allow a new message to be conveyed: “Eat meat, not animals”. With precision fermentation and cellular farming we can make cultured meat. The advantages are countless: cultured meat will be cheaper, safer, more animal-friendly and more environmentally friendly than animal meat. The same goes for milk without cows and eggs without chickens. Vegan behaviour change then becomes unnecessary.
The current method of producing meat is hopelessly inefficient. Take a cow. The thin skin of the animal causes a lot of heat loss, which means it has a high metabolism. This is why cows eat a lot. The large amount of animal feed means that a lot of agricultural land is needed and that the animal produces a large amount of inedible manure. Its bones are inedible and require phosphorus for growth, a resource that is becoming more and more scarce. The cow’s stomachs are inedible and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The liver produces unhealthy saturated fats that are deposited in muscle tissue. The intestines are inedible and are ideal breeding grounds for harmful gut bacteria that can contaminate the meat, requiring additional antibiotics and allowing the bacteria to become antibiotic resistant. The lungs are inedible and ideal for viral infectious diseases that can sometimes spread to humans. The latter can lead to pandemics (think of swine flu and bird flu). The brains are inedible, consume a lot of energy, and create a consciousness that causes the animal to experience much suffering through animal husbandry.
So, using animals to produce meat is a prime example of bad design. It can be done better, for example with a clean, closed bioreactor vessel in which only the relevant muscle cells can grow in optimal conditions.
Using animals to produce meat is a prime example of bad design. It can be done better.
Financially supporting scientific research into cultivated meat could well be a super investment. Here’s a rough calculation:
Global animal husbandry is a large-scale form of animal suffering, in which about 100 billion livestock are killed every year. In Europe, livestock farming receives 30 billion euros in subsidies each year. By comparison, animal-free cultivated meat has been severely neglected: global funding (by governments, companies and especially wealthy investors such as Bill Gates) for research and development of cultivated meat is only about 100 million euros per year. Suppose those investors continue to invest 100 million euros every year until the moment when dirt-cheap cultivated meat comes on the market (possibly within twenty years). Once it hits the market, consumers will pay for its production and marketing.
Over the next twenty years, we can accelerate that process by contributing a little ourselves. If we donate one euro to cultivated meat research, we would have that meat on the market roughly one hundred-millionth of a year faster. Suppose that cultivated meat, conservatively estimated, has only a one in ten chance of solving the problems of livestock farming (or only 10% of the livestock industry can be outcompeted).
We now have three numbers (100 billion livestock, 1/100 million euros and a 10% chance) that indicate how large-scale the livestock problem is, how badly neglected the alternative is and how strongly the alternative offers a solution. If we multiply these numbers, we arrive at a roughly estimated cost-effectiveness of 100 livestock per euro. In other words: if we spend one euro on cultivated meat research, we save the suffering of 100 livestock animals in captivity. Such cost-effectiveness is easily ten or a hundred times higher than traditional vegan campaigns.
Those 100 livestock animals correspond to a greenhouse gas emission of 10 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. With a reduction of 10 tonnes of CO2 per euro, cultivated meat research is a very cost-effective way to offset our CO2 emissions. Most CO2 compensation projects have a cost-effectiveness of less than 0.1 tonnes of CO2 per euro.
Calculation of the cost-effectiveness of measures against animal suffering shows how valuable money is, especially if invested in technological research.
Within the Effective Altruism movement it has been known for some time that a small minority of charities and measures to improve the world are much more effective than the large majority. Calculation of the cost-effectiveness of measures against animal suffering shows how valuable money is, especially if invested in technological research.
In recent years, a new school of thought emerged within the environmental movement, focusing on technological innovations to solve environmental and climate problems. The organisation Let’s Fund has analysed the impact of various climate measures, and concludes that research and development of clean energy is the most effective. The same applies to cultivated meat. This is how a new movement can arise within the animal rights movement, pointing to the high effectiveness of technological innovations in animal-free food, and leading to the collapse of the livestock industry.
If you want to contribute to one of the most effective animal welfare and climate measures, you can donate money to New Harvest or The Good Food Institute, which fund open source scientific research into cultivated meat.
Stijn Bruers is a moral philosopher, chairman of Effective Altruism Belgium and author of several books on effective altruism, including Beter worden in goed doen (Getting Better at Doing Good).