The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Vat-Grown Meat and Ideology

[UPDATED with more from Virginia Postrel.]


I love to eat meat. I don't believe meat is murder (or chicken is manslaughter, or eggs are kidnapping, or milk is sexual harassment). But just because I don't object to people killing animals for food doesn't mean that I affirmatively demand it. If people can develop delicious, safe, low-cost vat-grown meat, presumably grown from actually animal cells, that would be excellent. Indeed, it may well help generate tastes and textures that are hard to obtain through normal animal growth. It may reduce food-borne diseases. And it may have lower environmental burdens; regardless of whether one thinks we need to sacrifice to reduce such environmental burdens, in principle it may be possible to get better taste, lower financial costs, and lower environmental burdens as well. What's not to like about that?

Again, that's if all is done right, and many initial attempts will be failures. But that's how so many excellent products were developed. Many companies engage in many experiments; the unappealing ones fail, the appealing ones succeed, and the next generation of products is improved. Vat-grown meat, like many technological developments, is likely to improve markedly over time, and become less costly (as it already apparently has); hoof-grown meat isn't.

Is there a risk that such developments, though at first just offered voluntarily to consumers, will lead to government coercion (such as a ban on traditional cultivation of meat) even when the vat-grown product remains inferior to the traditional product? Yes, there is such a risk (cf. my article on slippery slopes); indeed, as Virginia Postrel notes,

Barring a new backlash, the long-term trajectory seems certain. Within a generation, vat-grown meat may be not merely common but normal. Within two, it could be morally imperative. Economics and technology can transform ethical expectations and practices.

But that strikes me as a poor reason to resist development of products that could end up being so valuable. It would have been unwise to fight central gas heating on the theory that it might eventually lead to bans on burning wood in fireplaces, or to fight the automobile on the theory that it might lead to limits on where one can ride one's horse or horse-drawn carriage. Likewise here.

Unsurprisingly, I agree on this with Postrel, which is why I was troubled (but not surprised) by her recent newsletter item on how some people reacted to her article praising vat-grown meat. Here's an excerpt:

The reaction to my WSJ article on cultivated meat has been fascinating and disturbing.

Some people in the business have lectured me not to use the terms synthetic, as in "synthetic biology," or lab-grown, lest I scare off customers. (Technically, meat is only lab-grown in the research stage, since scaling up requires something more like a brewery.) They are, in other words, squeamish about acknowledging the artifice involved in their own products—exactly what interests me!

Then there's the knee-jerk right-wing reaction, represented by the comments on the WSJ site…. [My article was] a story about market-driven progress! Abundance is good!! The anti-Promethean backlash is bad! "Cruelty-free" is tendentious and the Center for Food Safety is the bad guy. Those are all right-of-center tells.

Or they used to be. I was naively stuck in the 20th century.

Back then, when I hung out with ideologues more than I do today, people on the American right liked technological innovation and market competition. They celebrated ingenuity and entrepreneurship. They might predict that a given product would fail or choose not to buy it—that's the system, after all—but they weren't affronted by the mere existence of for-profit approaches to social or environmental issues. They weren't insulted by the idea that technology might alter attitudes by changing costs.

Now, everything is personal and I, who write as a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress, am read as a woke propagandist.

Quite unfortunate, I think. At the same time, I also think Prof. Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit) has a likewise sensible reaction:

I too am a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress. But I can see a couple of problems. One is that "synthetic meat" is a confusing term. It means real meat, grown in a vat instead of in a cow, but it sounds like it might be the non-nutritious "Beyond Meat/Impossible" slop marketed to vegans.

Second, the technocracy is pushing this stuff, and the technocracy is currently in bad odor. There's a real lack of trust, and once people start to think that the technocracy will do things to them that they don't like — and often lie about it in the process — the lack of trust spreads from specific subjects to more general matters….

In an ideal world, where we could talk about this sort of thing on its own merits and in a generally good-faith manner — like the world we at least thought we lived in back in the '90s — things would be different. But we don't live in that world now.

UPDATE: Virginia Postrel responds in turn:

I would strongly encourage anyone who is in the #synbio business, esp. in consumer-facing products like cultivated meat, to seriously engage with the fear of coercion. Environmentalists don't have a good track record of respecting the choices of ordinary people who want their toilets to flush and dishwashers to rinse and don't want a compost pile on their kitchen counter. DJT didn't invent these grievances. I experience them regularly in my own home. (Not looking forward to the composting. Not everyone in CA has a backyard, people.)

Get out of your cultural bubbles, where everyone shares your assumptions about food and science and global warming and try to generate excitement about the future in places like Knoxville.