Veganism and In Vitro Meat

The Vegan Society has rightly raised concerns with the continued physical violence that in vitro development entails, including using cultures from nonhuman animals and other forms of vivisection. Sociologically, however, it is important to recognize the symbolic violence that cultured meat sustains. Here I suggest that the feminist movement has much to offer. Many have suggested that prostitution and realistic sex dolls are “ethical alternatives” for men who wish to own, control, exploit, and abuse women, supposedly reducing their desire to enact violence on others. Aside from dehumanizing prostituted women, this logic masks the fact that such an approach effectively normalizes the ownership, exploitation, and commodification of women. Encouraging products and services that mimic or contain systemic violence only supports a culture in which violence is enjoyable, acceptable, and for sale to those in power.

The normalcy of speciesism and sexism, incidentally, is clearly demonstrable in the fact that these debates about capitalist “solutions” to develop analogous, consumable victims are engaged at all. We would never for instance, encourage white supremacists to enjoy themselves with AI-generated slavery as an “ethical alternative” to white supremacy. We would never encourage teens to take pleasure in video game simulations of school shootings as an “ethical alternative” to real-world mass murder. We intuitively understand that these symbolic acts of violence could have consequences for people of colour and children. Women and other animals in today’s culture, however, remain so objectified that nonprofits and venture capitalists collaborate to profitably continue this objectification, albeit masked in language of ethics and scientific advancement to resonate in a “woke” and “sustainable” 21st century.

While the symbolic ramifications of further commodifying animal flesh create serious misgivings, it also remains the case that in vitro meat completely overlooks the billions of other nonhumans raised in the food system who are not directly slaughtered for their flesh. For that matter, in vitro technology also does nothing for the billions of oppressed animals who suffer in non-food related industries. Dairy cattle, veal calves, wool producing sheep, layer hens, and racehorses, for example, all go to slaughter when their bodies become “spent” and inefficient. And what of “leather” and “fur”? In vitro meat does nothing to reduce the demand for animal flesh used in fashion. What of rodeos, zoos, and circuses? In vitro technology is totally unrelated. These animals will not be spared by lab-grown meat. Veganism, as an ethic, philosophy, and political vision, considers humanity’s oppression of other animals holistically. In vitro meat development, alternatively, is better suited to creating wealth for shareholders by globally expanding animal protein in the human diet.

Indeed, I argue that the most glaring shortcoming of the in vitro scheme is that it overlooks speciesist attitudes and institutions as problematic in of themselves. In vitro meat purports to meet the supposedly insatiable public demand for Nonhuman Animal flesh, but this is a demand that is artificially controlled by industry. By reducing the cognitive dissonance that consumers experience in grappling with the suffering, death, and considerable environmental pollution their food choices cause, in vitro meat may further fuel the normalcy of speciesism and meat consumption. In vitro meat will become the next “happy meat,” allowing consumers to retreat into industry-led myths that the flesh they eat comes from humanely-treated animals. Indeed, it is likely that consumers will be completely unaware of the institutionalized violence that remains in the production of in vitro meat. Producers will employ similar tactics to those they currently employ to block public knowledge of the nonhuman experience. It is the consumer awareness and ethical discomfort with speciesist consumption that the vegan movement has been building for more than a century that will be necessary for real change. More importantly, this individual-level work must be coupled with challenges to oppressive social institutions.

From a human perspective, in vitro meat is also deeply problematic. There is already a thriving industry of healthy and tasty plant-based products, including those that convincingly mimic the flavour and texture of animal flesh. Because consumers are aware that these analogues are plant-based and not of animal origin, they do not threaten to reinforce speciesism to the same degree that in vitro flesh might. It must be emphasized, furthermore, that animal protein is toxic for humans and the effort to globalize heavy animal protein diets is rooted in colonialism, racism, and classism. Normalizing in vitro flesh will aggravate serious diet-related public health crises that disproportionately harm vulnerable human communities that lack the resources and infrastructure to cope. Vegans should not be promoting toxic products, especially when healthier, more affordable alternatives are available and have been available before Western capitalism began to privatize land and undermine traditional food production across the globe. The more practical response to ensuring world nutrition would be a governmental investment in plant-based food security, a strategy that vegans can support.

As a sociologist, it is my position that vegans should be sceptical of campaigns that purport to solve the inherent problems of free market capitalism with yet more free market capitalism. In vitro meat may be palatable for venture capitalists, but it is unlikely to create meaningful social change for nonhuman animals. Capitalism aims to exploit materials and labour for the purpose of reducing input costs, increasing efficiency, and creating surplus value; it is not designed to liberate. Instead, it has a well-documented history of objectifying and commodifying everything and everyone in its pursuit of that profit. For these reasons, in vitro meat should remain outside the remit of vegan advocacy.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
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