More and more companies are now attempting to develop lab-grown meat – or clean meat, as it’s often called. Clean meat is produced by taking cells from live animals and growing them into meat in a laboratory. This has been hailed as a breakthrough by many, as it will allow meat to be produced without slaughtering animals. Clean meat also has a far smaller environmental footprint than conventional meat, and could be made to contain less saturated fat.
The development of clean meat has sparked a lot of debate in the vegan community. Some believe that if it lessens animal suffering and helps the environment, it’s a positive thing. Others believe taking cells from animals is still a form of exploitation and is not acceptable. So what’s my opinion, as an ethical vegan and animal rights activist?
Is clean meat vegan?
I have seen some articles describe clean meat as vegan because it doesn’t involve killing animals. This is not the case. Veganism is a rejection of any form of animal exploitation. Since animals can’t consent to having their cells taken, this is exploitative, and clean meat can’t be said to be vegan.
But is this taking things too far, striving for ideological perfection? Many people can’t see the issue with taking cells if it doesn’t harm the animal.
My own ethical compass is pretty simple – I ask whether I would want it done to me. If not, I don’t consider it to be ethical. I don’t know about you, but I definitely wouldn’t want my cells ‘harvested’ without my consent. Being subjected to this would be bad enough, but if I also had no idea what was being done to me, it would be frightening and upsetting. Animals are not automatons, and I imagine they would experience similar emotions. It’s scary and isolating to feel you’re not in control of what happens to your own body.
If we asked animals whether they minded their cells being taken, and they were able to respond, what would they say? It’s unlikely they would want it done. But animals are not able to tell us when something hurts, is uncomfortable, or upsets them. Imagine how different the world would be if they could. We certainly wouldn’t be able to slaughter them and kid ourselves that it was humane, for example. But back to the subject at hand.
Could clean meat ever be ethically acceptable?
One area where clean meat could be positive is pet food. I don’t support buying animals from breeders, and in a vegan utopia people wouldn’t keep pets at all. But right now, many people have pets they bought before going vegan, and others have rescue animals (which I absolutely do support!). For vegans, the question of how to feed pets can be a thorny one. There’s a level of irony about buying pet food made of slaughtered animals to feed a rescued animal, but it’s sometimes the only option. Pet food made of clean meat could provide a less harmful option.
What about those who won’t give up meat?
Clean meat may not be vegan, but some people are unlikely to give up meat. Surely it’s better that they eat clean meat than conventional meat? Well, yes. But I believe there’s more which could be done to encourage people to try plant-based alternatives. Former slaughterhouse workers, butchers, vivisectionists and beef farmers have all been known to go vegan. I believe many hardcore meat-eaters would reconsider their decisions if educated about the animal rights, environmental, health and human rights issues associated with meat production. We shouldn’t just assume that people are incapable of change.
There are now many highly realistic plant-based alternatives to meat; some even ‘bleed’ when you bite into them. Many meat-eaters have tried these products and have not been able to tell the difference. So why do we need clean meat at all? It’s puzzling to me that people would rather eat lab-grown meat than try a plant-based alternative. I think if people realised how delicious and satisfying plant-based meat alternatives can be, many would choose them over clean meat.
If, for whatever reason, people are completely unwilling to eat plant-based products but willing to try clean meat, I concede that this would be preferable to them eating conventional meat. But I strongly believe the future is plant-based. Eventually, I suspect people will look back and think how weird it was that we were so desperate to eat things resembling animal flesh!
In the meantime, if clean meat is truly necessary as an intermediary step, then so be it. In the future, it may no longer be necessary to take cells from animals to produce it – I may revise my judgement if and when this happens. But I will never eat clean meat myself, and will likely always find it a strange concept. What about you?