The right side of history

‘Slavery is an abomination and must be proclaimed loudly as such, but I own that I nor any other man has any immediate solution to the problem.’ – Thomas Jefferson, slave owner and Founding Father of the USA

rohes rindfleisch / uncooked beef

I like to think that people generally want to do the right thing. The trouble is, sometimes life can get in the way. Sometimes we really can’t do what’s right, but other times it’s just too inconvenient. Raise your hand if you’ve ever jumped on a train without paying, because it was about to leave and you just didn’t have time – I know I’m guilty. But generally, as long as it’s not too hard to do the right thing, most of us will.

This doesn’t just apply to individuals – there are also examples of whole societies becoming more ethical once it became easier to do so. Slavery was only abolished after the industrial revolution, as machines started making intensive manual labour redundant. Another example is whaling – it’s very easy for us to condemn it now, but what about when the cleanest, cheapest way to light your desk lamp was with spermaceti scooped out of a whale’s skull?

Having this thought in mind raises the question of what our society’s next big ethical frontier is. Is there something that’s widely practiced today, but which our descendants will condemn as obviously harmful and wrong? I can think of one clear answer to that question: factory farming.

There is a host of reasons why factory farming is a big moral problem, but the heart of the issue is pretty simple. Factory farming is seriously cruel to animals, and practically everybody is (at least intellectually) against animal cruelty. Most people have at least a vague idea that factory farming makes animals suffer. Some of us have even heard about the massive problems factory farming causes through climate change, food insecurity and antibiotic resistance. However, most of us find this thought uncomfortable and would prefer to think about something else. The few who do hop on to Google and start researching factory farming generally become depressed, vegan, or both.

So why do we, as consumers, still pay people to run factory farms for us? The trouble is, eating meat is deeply ingrained into our culture. So is looking for cheap food; the main reason factory farming involves such cruelty is because taking good care of animals would be more expensive. Besides, changing our regular behaviour is hard. Anyone who’s tried a diet will tell you that. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options out there, but of course it can be hard for people to give up meat when they’ve been eating it since they were children.

Improving society’s ethical standards is very difficult to do, but thankfully new technology is within our reach that will make it easier for people to do the right thing, without any guilt-tripping or significant lifestyle change. We need an alternative to factory-farmed meat that isn’t as bad for the climate, takes up fewer resources, doesn’t contribute to antibiotic resistance and – most importantly – doesn’t make animals suffer.

The answer to this challenge? Clean meat.

Clean meat is a term used to describe meat grown in a laboratory. Clean meat aims to be healthier, cheaper, and taste as good or better than animal meat, but without having the ethical downsides.

If we stop and think about the process of farming meat from animals, it’s actually so inefficient it seems practically archaic. When we feed plant-based food to animals, not all of that energy and protein is converted to meat; they burn a lot of it just to keep themselves alive. So much energy is lost in this process that the efficiency of converting plant energy to animal energy is only about 10%.

And that’s not even considering all the extra water, fuel and work that goes into production and transportation. It brings to mind monks in the Dark Ages copying out books by hand, compared to the efficiency of the printing press, compared again to the blinding speed of the internet.

The same way that it’s unfathomable to us in the Information Age that once upon a time, every letter of every word in existence had to be written by hand, one day it will seem absurd to our grandchildren that we farmed animals for their meat. We have to breed them, build vast structures to hold them, pump them with antibiotics, and gorge them on energy-dense food we could be eating ourselves.

Compare this to the simple efficiency of prime cuts of meat being quietly and steadily grown in dishes under optimal conditions. The factories of today’s meat farming are like the coal-hungry, smog-belching steel mills of Victorian England. The factories of tomorrow’s meat farming could have the clean precision of a modern pharmaceutical company synthesising medicines.

So how far off are we from having clean meat on our shelves? The first clean meat burger was made by Dr. Mark Post in 2013, and cost about $33,000, but there have been rapid developments in the past few years. The San Francisco start-up Memphis Meats is now producing clean meat for around $20 per gram, and Dr. Post’s company, Mosa Meats, plans to sell its clean meat hamburgers for $10 a patty by 2020.

The end goal is to produce clean meat that is cheaper than even the least expensive conventionally produced chicken, and leading experts believe that is achievable within 10 years with enough support for clean meat research and development. Non-profits such as The Good Food Institute and The Modern Agriculture Foundation are working on accelerating this technology’s path to the marketplace.

Society’s transition from factory farming to clean meat is inevitable. There will probably be some purists who insist that animal meat is better than synthesised meat, even once clean meat is tastier, healthier and cheaper. After all, people today still collect vinyl records in the world of Spotify.

But unlike vinyl records, animal meat has a huge number of ethical problems that come with it. Perhaps it’s more like slavery, and once we no longer need animal meat we’ll open our eyes, realise what we’ve been doing and ban factory farming completely.

While it’s great that clean meat is on the horizon, what should we do in the meantime?

Although clean meat is not going to be mainstream anytime soon, we still have strong ethical reasons not to pay for animal cruelty in factory farms.

But there’s another way of framing this ethical issue: we need to think of a few questions we might face in the future. What will we tell our grandchildren when they ask us about the bad old days, back when people still raised and killed animals in factories? Will we be ashamed of the part we played in their suffering?

It would be better if we could tell our grandkids that even before clean meat was available, we did the right thing and didn’t pay for animal cruelty.

For many people, making this change won’t be easy, and may take time or even several attempts. But if we do make that change, we will be able to look our grandkids in the eye and proudly say that we were different. We were on the right side of history.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.