I remember watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Commander Riker was eating some replicated meat while talking about how humans used to eat _real_ meat for food, but now everyone had evolved past such barbarity. Well, it may not be too long before someone has an opportunity to be similarly smug about the current age of barbarity. Researchers in the Netherlands are hard at work growing meat from animal stem cells. If they can accomplish this, we may soon be living in a world where we can eat meat without killing animals to do it.
Is this a good thing? I know this won’t satisfy hardcore deep ecologists, who will wring their hands about “Frankenfood” (even though the process involves very little more than just providing favourable conditions for a kind of cell growth that actually occurs, in that form, as it is in nature). There will also be the usual environmentalist hairshirt arguments – it’s not morality, after all, if it doesn’t involve sacrifice. If everyone is offered ethical meat from the get-go, where is the opportunity for virtuous self-restraint in the name of Mother Earth?
Probably environmentalists will be no more impressed by science offering an opportunity to bypass the ethical dilemma associated with causing distress to developed animal nervous systems than anti-abortionists are by the RU-486 pill that offers an opportunity to induce an abortion before there is a possibility to cause distress to a fetal nervous system.
I may not be entirely rational about meat – at least I’m open to the possibility that I’m not. When the question of the ethics of eating it are brought up, I tend to focus on how I feel about eating meat (I like it) rather than whether it is a good thing to do. The rational arguments I hear most often strike me either as missing some content or as the beginnings of an appeal to wearing that vastly uncomfortable hairshirt.
The hairshirt arguments tend to dissuade me the fastest. I always wonder what would have happened if someone had told me “You know how Chinese people put yummy sauce on their food and you almost don’t even care what’s under the sauce? You totally wouldn’t miss meat.” The animal rights crowd almost never hit you with that argument. They will tell you how yummy tofu is (it isn’t), but never about the joys of sauces that disguise the taste of things that people don’t want to eat. Maybe someday I will go vegan (I tried it for a short time in college), but if I do, it will be because someone found a way to make vegetables worth my time to eat, not because I have learned to accept how to settle for inferior-tasting food.
But this article reminds me of some of the problems I have with the traditional anti-meat arguments in terms of missing content. The Dutch researchers say that, if they manage to popularise their “ethical meat”, in order to produce it, we would not need to have nearly as many animals involved in the meat production process. A few would be needed to donate stem cells, but not even close to the numbers we currently need in order to produce meat. Well, that’s interesting. Say it with me now: “So, what’s going to happen to the rest of those animals?”
If we currently breed livestock because that is necessary in order that we might eat them, doesn’t it stand to reason that we would stop breeding livestock if it were no longer necessary in order that we might eat them. So instead of animals living for a while and then getting eaten, the animals will instead never live at all. On top of that, most of those currently bred but no longer “ethical” to eat would, presumably, be released into the wild…which would probably disrupt ecosystems all over the place. Animals that have, for generations, been “farm” animals would have to figure out how to live with wild animals – most likely becoming “invasive species” if they do manage to stay alive in their new environments.
We might also see the flip side of a common argument about meat production at that point. Environmentalists often point out what they take to be the folly of using “80% of the world’s farmland to support meat production”. But that also means that 80% of the world’s farmland is used to support _animals eating_. We also often hear about how much energy is lost when we eat animals which eat plants instead of just eating plants. But the reason that happens is that the animals expend energy _living_.
If meat production no longer requires the sustaining of animals for a certain period of time, yes, what’s produced on the farm can go to feeding humans healthy grains and vegetable matter chock full of energy…but what’s going to happen to the animals? Either there would have to be a die-off from present populations, or someone is going to have to get them near some sources of food.
If there is one thing veganism has going for it, it’s that it expresses a concern for what happens to animals. Perhaps we should think a few things through on that basis. Much of what environmentalist/animal rights activists steer us towards as far as animal treatment is concerned is both worthy and achievable – the world could certainly use less factory farming, more free-range conditions for animals, and some genuine concern for “animal happiness” (or if you prefer, the free expression of animal instincts). But I still think other green commitments need to be thought through a bit more – really to see if they are, in fact, commitments that make sense overall as truly green commitments.
One reason I’ve never been able to take the plunge into deepest, darkest green ecology is that I’m worried that “deep” ecologists don’t talk much about things like the foregoing. It’s the “shallow” ecologists that tend to focus on the pragmatic “what happens if we do that” kinds of questions about environmental systems – questions that ultimately need to be confronted, even if we can’t see that right away.
It may be that the ethical decisions we make about animals are part of a web of complicated, interrelated decisions, the ramifications of which we only grasp when we try something new. That’s not an argument against trying new things – but it is an argument to be circumspect about possible unintended consequences.