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The Future of Meat Is Vegan

A plan to eliminate animal farming relies on science and startups.

In August 2013, Mark Post, a professor of physiology at Maastricht University, held a press conference in a television studio kitchen in London. Lifting the silver lid from a platter, he revealed a creation that seemed very humble by culinary-TV standards: a round, palm-size patty of dark pink hamburger meat. But as Post explained, his burger was no ordinary chunk of beef. Instead of coming from the flesh of a slaughtered cow, the muscle fibers in the meat had been grown from cow cells in a lab. A chef pan-fried a few and served them to a panel of food critics, who praised the meat’s dense texture and the way the outside browned up in the pan, lamenting only the lack of salt, pepper, and ketchup.

The burgers were the result of cellular agriculture, an emerging field of biotechnology that uses tissue engineering to produce the edible products—fats, proteins, and trace minerals—that have traditionally come from livestock and farming. It is this technology (referred to variously as lab-grown meat, in vitro meat, animal-free meat, and clean meat), along with plant-based substitutes, that Jacy Reese’s The End of Animal Farming argues will put livestock farms out of business, without necessarily meaning the end of meat. In the future that Reese envisions, consumers will be able to choose from a variety of real meats, cultured in facilities resembling beer breweries, with no animals harmed in the making.

Beacon Press, 240 pp., $27.95

Reese, an animal rights advocate from rural Texas, now lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée, their dog, and two rescue hens. (The hens, saved from factory farms, are medicated with something analogous to birth-control so that they won’t lay eggs, which, Reese says, lets them live longer and happier lives.) He came to animal advocacy circuitously, through his interest in effective altruism—using data analysis to figure out what actions will yield the greatest positive impact on the world. From there it was a short intellectual journey to his concern for the widely overlooked but vast issue of animal suffering. “Atrocities,” he writes, “rely on the exclusion of certain sentient beings from our moral consideration.” If we considered the treatment of the more than 100 billion farmed animals alive on the planet at this moment, most of which will be born into lives of miserable confinement, we would see our current industrial system of animal farming, Reese writes, as “a moral catastrophe.”

On matters of strategy, however, he differs sharply from other animal rights advocates, and has criticized PETA for its provocative publicity tactics, including the use of fat-shaming to promote a vegan diet, and a campaign to eliminate anti-animal language (which suggests substituting the saying “kill two birds with one stone” with “feed two birds with one scone”). “The word ‘PETA’ has become a pejorative for stunts, gimmicks, and putting feelings over facts when it comes to animal issues,” he wrote in the conservative publication Quillette last December. Reese believes, instead, that technology could render animal farming obsolete; rather than focusing on change at the grass roots, he makes scientists and entrepreneurs the heroes of his narrative. In the literature of meat-eating ethics—in which Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is the philosophically rigorous canonical text, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals the sentimental journey toward vegetarianism, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma the gourmand’s effort to balance conscience and appetite—Reese has carved out his own niche: the business-friendly techno-utopian optimist.

His approach resonates with a set of growing concerns about the effects of animal farming. Between warnings of livestock’s contributions to climate change and environmental degradation and increasing public awareness of the cruelties of factory farming, meatless tech is on the rise. In recent years, the Impossible Burger—made from a meaty-flavored, genetically engineered soy—launched to much buzz. You can now get them in a White Castle slider. The Economist declared 2019 the year of the vegan and forecast a plant-based future: A quarter of adults aged 25 to 34 say they are vegetarian or vegan. And the market is following their lead, with clean-meat startups and agribusiness giants investing in alternatives to animal protein. Noting that even Tyson Foods has bought a stake in a “plant-based meat” company, The Economist’s John Parker wrote that “even Big Meat is going vegan.”

The science of tissue culturing began in 1885, when the German zoologist Wilhelm Roux extracted some neural tissue from a chicken embryo and maintained it in warm saline solution for several days, establishing that under the right conditions, tissue could survive and even grow outside the body. In the 1950s and ’60s, experiments in cell-culturing scaled up from individual efforts to bigger research programs. Observing these developments, the biologist Willem van Eelen started to explore manufacture for consumers, and in 1999 he patented techniques for growing meat, helping to pave the way for Mark Post’s slaughter-free burger. Today the process starts with cells from a live animal, putting them into a culture medium that provides necessary nutrients, adding a biomaterial “scaffold” to which cells attach and form muscle fibers, and combining the whole mix in a bioreactor where fluctuations in temperature will spur growth—more complicated, but not terribly unlike brewing beer or kombucha.

Reese gives a quick overview of the scientific developments in cellular agriculture, but his main aim is to identify forces that these products will have to overcome if they are to outdo animal meat on a mass scale, and to offer advice on marketing them. Reese knows that meat eating is deeply ingrained in many cultures and is growing in others, and that convincing people to give it up won’t be easy. He lists the “four Ns” as the main categories of reasons people give for sticking with meat—that it is nice, normal, necessary, and natural—and, for each of these positions, he offers counterarguments.

It’s important, Reese writes, to challenge the assumption that meat is “normal,” because many consumers may be wary of straying from the status quo. But if they hear, for example, that Ariana Grande is a vegetarian, or see that the default airline meal is animal-free, those experiences add up and can change their expectations of ordinary food. Reese swiftly and easily dispenses with the idea that eating meat is “necessary” for health, pointing out that vegans and vegetarians are often healthier than their meat-eating counterparts, and that vegan athletes and bodybuilders have no trouble getting protein or gaining strength. Countering the idea that meat is “nice,” or pleasurable to eat, is hardest. Many people simply aren’t interested in the substitute meats that exist, or they’re reluctant to give up favorite animal-based dishes.

The discussion of whether meat is “natural” is the most illuminating. It might seem natural for humans, simply as omnivores in the food chain, to eat meat. But Reese argues that if we define natural as, roughly, that which would exist without modern human technology, then “virtually no modern food is natural.” For decades, sometimes centuries, animals have been selectively bred and reared to proportions that maximize meat production. How much more “unnatural” is it to eat a chicken breast grown in a lab than it is to eat one that came from a live bird that was bred to have such outsize chest musculature that it could barely stand without tipping over?

Though Reese’s arguments are compelling, he doesn’t believe that this kind of reasoning is what will ultimately drive a change. He expects that to come from advances in animal-less meat technology, and from the growing problems with production of food from animals. “The ace in the hole for the inevitability of the end of animal farming,” he asserts, “is the incredible inefficiency of making meat, dairy, and eggs from animals.” That is, an animal’s body does more than produce meat—it builds bones and hair, it breathes and moves and senses, all of which consume energy, so that for every one calorie of meat produced, a farm animal takes in ten calories or more. Lab-grown meat doesn’t perform any of these functions, of course, and so it has a much higher caloric conversion ratio than animals, which are, in Reese’s words, “inefficient producers of flesh.”

He profiles some of the main companies in the meatless technology field, which he hopes will take clean meat mainstream. Hampton Creek, now called JUST, creates plant-based alternatives to eggs and dairy, and wants to target average consumers, not just vegans. Impossible Foods takes an analytical approach to isolating the components and characteristics of meat, and builds plant-based versions that have more in common with animal flesh than with the veggie burgers and Tofurkeys of yore. Beyond Meat makes products similar to those from Impossible Foods, but whereas Impossible Foods was initially marketed to restaurateurs like David Chang, Beyond Meat goes for the home cooks, selling to Whole Foods and other grocery chains.

For all these companies’ efforts, Reese is also aware that changing people’s diets and food cultures—which foods they consider delicious or luxurious, or which they incorporate into traditional dishes—is a deeply social project. He recognizes that advocates for animal-free food will need to work on social change, to ensure that as the technologies continue to develop (“which seems fairly inevitable”), people actually choose to eat the products. If scientists and businesses lead, recipes must follow.

Reese’s book isn’t likely to win the hearts and palates of many meat eaters. Its tone is coolly dry, bordering on mathematical. Part of this comes from Reese’s commitment to effective altruism, whose adherents say they use “evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes” rather than “just doing what feels right.” It might be a refreshing shift in tone from the extreme compassion and occasional sanctimony that can surround arguments for animal welfare, and it’s certainly a sensible way to organize the activities of an advocacy group—but as the engine of a work of nonfiction, the constant emphasis on efficiency runs a little cold. Even Reese’s discussion of suffering itself is mathematical, as he calculates the amount of harm a farm does by the number of animals it keeps and the number of hours they spend there, without accounting for differences in their consciousness. He gives the suffering of a fish the same weight as the suffering of a pig.

Yet despite its structure and tone, the book’s underlying argument itself is important. Reese makes plain that eating meat causes an enormous amount of avoidable pain and suffering, and refuses to accept ignorance as an excuse. Most people have long known that farmed chickens live in tight wire cages where they go crazy with stress, or that hogs will get so depressed that they don’t fight back when nearby animals bite their tails. People who know these facts and eat meat anyway (I do both) may tell ourselves that it’s just the way things are, or cultivate an internal moral firewall, refusing to think about the processes that brought our protein to our plates.

Reese also rejects measures intended to make eating animals a little less morally objectionable. Michael Pollan has, for instance, envisioned not the abolition but the transformation of animal farming, into a system in which animals can live outdoors, “in contact with the sun, the earth, and the gaze of the farmer,” and in which consumers know where their meat comes from. A neat way to make the industrial meat system kinder, he thought, might begin with simple visibility: “Maybe all we need to do to redeem industrial animal agriculture in this country,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “is to pass a law requiring that the steel and concrete walls” of the slaughterhouses “be replaced with … glass.” Then, surely, conditions would have to improve. Why end the practice altogether when the cruelties can be eliminated?

Reese concedes that some smaller specialty farms might operate more ethically than the factory behemoths, but insists that exploiting sentient beings “is a moral misdeed even if those sentient beings live happy lives.” Most significantly, he argues that these specialty farms provide a “psychological refuge” for meat eaters, who can take solace in the fact that they sometimes eat ethically farmed meat, even though most meat isn’t produced this way. By occasionally choosing the “happier” meat option, people are able to imagine that their choices don’t contribute to the big, brutal system, that the meatballs on their kitchen table have nothing to do with those shadowy stories about deranged chickens and terrified cows.

Again, he’s right. Cruelty is all but impossible to eliminate from an industrialized meat-production system that prizes profitability above all else. Up to the 1940s and ’50s, typical animal farms in the United States were pasture-based and raised various types of animals. Now they are concentrated operations—the term of art for a factory farm is a “concentrated animal feeding operation,” or CAFO. This consolidation has made it possible for Americans to eat more meat, more cheaply, and it has brought horrific conditions. The current system tasks workers with stunning live birds by dunking them in electrified water and docking the tails of pigs, in settings where the primary concern is keeping costs low. (Pollan pointed out that in ancient Greece, slaughter was entrusted to priests: “priests!—now we entrust the job to minimum-wage workers.”) In 2018, the average American ate more than 200 pounds of red meat and poultry, a record high. The way this plentiful meat is produced is simply hard to stomach.

Reading Reese’s book, I found myself thinking of Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, published in 2002. Like Reese, Scully describes the abuse of animals as a moral wrong, but unlike Reese, Scully’s assessment is suffused with fellow-feeling. Scully comes to the issue as a Christian (though, by his own assessment, “not a particularly pious” one) and as a conservative. And so it’s surprising that his book also includes scathing critiques of capitalism throughout: “My copy of the Good Book doesn’t say, ‘Go forth to selleth every creature that moveth.’ It doesn’t say you can baiteth and slayeth and stuffeth every thing in sight, either, let alone deducteth the costs,” he writes. He criticizes his fellow conservatives for their posture in animal-welfare conversations, for their “lazy disdain of moral inconveniences,” and their belief “that somehow the free market will right all things and any cruelty will be redeemed by the miraculous workings of capitalism.” And this from a man who worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

It is something of this kind of fiery radicalism that I was hoping to find in Reese’s book. His idea is radical. But The End of Animal Farming proceeds blandly through its points like a slide deck at a pitch meeting. Instead of critiquing the capitalist logic that gives us factory farming, Reese proposes replacing the meat business with another, more technically advanced model. And that’s fine and sensible. But it seems unlikely that such a dispassionate approach will be enough to spark the major changes in eating habits and foodways that could bring about a slaughterless future. Reese’s idea—that people will give up something pleasurable and familiar without the spark of something deeply felt, be it shame or compassion—relies on a very generous view of the human animal.