I wish I came to veganism through an epiphany about the right to personhood of animals, or recognition of the environmental harm that animal farming causes. But I didn’t. What turned me vegan was a night of vomiting brought on by undercooked ostrich. It was Glastonbury Festival, 2019. Being 21, hungover, and hungry, I thought I’d get a snack from the only vendor at the festival without a queue. Later, while crouched in a portaloo batting away hallucinations of ostrich slaughter, I vowed never to eat meat again.
Today, I eat the same diet as many vegans. My diet is defined by wanting to avoid animal suffering and damage to the environment but, unlike some vegans, I don’t dislike meat. I know that if I tasted salmon again my tastebuds would explode with pleasure, but I abstain because I don’t think my right to life trumps that of another animal. Believe me, I want to eat meat again. But I won’t.
That is, I won’t eat meat from an animal who has been alive. When I discovered that lab-grown meat had been declared safe to eat by the US Food and Drug Administration, I was overjoyed. Meat, grown like a plant, with no suffering involved … Immediately I was imagining future Christmas dinners: lab-grown turkey with cranberry sauce on the side.
But when I announced my excitement to my vegan friends, they recoiled. Everyone felt grossed out. Ella Marshall, deputy trademark manager of the Vegan Society, the world’s oldest vegan association, told me in an email that “we cannot officially support cultivated meat as animals are still used in its production [...] we would not be able to register such products with the Vegan Trademark.”
I had been naive in thinking that vegans would embrace cultured meat. Veganism is a broad church, filled with various interpretations. Accordingly, as lab-grown meat becomes available as a cheap, sustainable form of protein that does not require animal suffering, veganism will face an identity crisis. Conflict will arise between vegans whose philosophy is defined by the simple avoidance of animal products and those who believe in a more radical restructuring of our relationship with the animal world.
Ultimately, arguments against cultured meat could hamper the progress of animal liberation. Vegans should not permit this. If we want to see an end to animal exploitation, it is our moral duty to call lab-grown meat vegan, even if it unnerves us.
If you read science fiction, the idea of lab-grown meat might not seem so strange. Writers from Philip K. Dick to Douglas Adams have explored the technology. But how, in real life, does it work?
To cultivate meat involves taking stem cells from an animal to grow inside bioreactors. Though these biopsies are invasive, the process is less painful than many of the procedures an animal might endure during its lifetime on a farm, and, importantly, the process does not involve the animal being killed. In the bioreactors, the cells are fooled into believing they are still inside an animal’s body, as they are kept in a substrate made up of nutrients like amino acids, vitamins, carbohydrates, and proteins. Once the meat is grown, the product is harvested and processed into whatever form the manufacturers wish to sell. Since the first $375,000 burger was eaten in 2013, manufacturing costs have gone down. Though still expensive compared to conventionally farmed meat, the drop in cost is radical, and set to continue. Eventually lab-grown meat could become more affordable than traditionally farmed animals.
For vegans, there should be a lot to love about this new technology. Its potential to reduce everything from animal suffering to greenhouse gas emissions make the technology, if not revolutionary, at least a useful tool in the fight against climate change.