On “Happy Meat”

There are a few questions that seem to get asked at every single animal rights event I’ve ever been to, in spite of their complete inanity.  At the end of any lecture by a vegan philosopher, it’s inevitably that some carnivore with raise their hand and smugly—as if they had come up with an idea so original it would be totally debilitating to the vegan argument—ask, “How do you know plants don’t have feelings too?”  Another inevitable question that makes me feel like throttling someone is “What if we bred animals that want to be eaten?”

Image from "suicidefood.blogspot.com", which you should totally check out.

I am forced to concede, however, that apparently these idiots might actually be on to something, at least with one common query.  According to the Telegraph, Dutch scientists have managed to grow something vaguely resembling meat in a laboratory. At least some animal rights supporters are excited about this development: PETA, in fact, is offering one million dollars to anyone who can get this petri-dish pork onto shelves by 2012.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons to stay skeptical.  The meat in question was cultured using in a solution made out of, well, meat, which rather defeats the entire purpose (they are hoping to come up with a synthetic alternative).  Moreover, the erstwhile pork chop was a bit soggy: there’s a lot of development that will need to take place before it is edible, much less marketable.  Still, in principle, I like the idea: as someone who very much enjoyed the taste of meat in my sixteen years of pre-vegetarian darkness, I suppose I would be willing to eat meat that involved no animal suffering and avoided the environmental externalities of livestock production.

All that said, though, the real reason I am writing this post is, ironically, to state why I think animal rights groups talking about “test-tube” meats is, ultimately, a useless distraction.  Imagine, for a moment, that by some miracle of engineering they managed to produce laboratory meat that was no more expensive than factory farmed meat (unlikely) and tasted the same (double unlikely).  Would this change the present state of animal exploitation in the world?

I submit that it would not.  As it is, eating animal products involves humans putting their most trivial interests—taste, convenience, and habit—over the most fundamental interests of animals—life and the avoidance of suffering.  Purchasers of so-called “humane” animal products only reinforce this calculus, making purchases that, essentially, assert that even when we attempt to consider animal interests, they only merit tiny alterations, like a slight improvement in the method of slaughter, a slightly larger cage (Anyone interested in learning about such “happy meat” should check out Gary Francione’s blog).

My point is, so long as the most inconsequential of human interests are accepted as invalidating any interest of an animal (if we even accept that they have them), then no one is going to bother buying laboratory meat.  There are already a whole host of meat substitutes, but their proliferation has not managed to make the population go vegetarian.  Why would anyone risk eating a genetically engineered steak that might taste a bit funny, when they are able to purchase the real thing guilt-free?

These issues have been on my mind on multiple fronts this week.  In advance of Copenhagen, a few animal rights supporters released a report claiming that a whopping 51% of greenhouse gas equivalents come from livestock (the previous guess, from the U.N., was that animal production accounted for a still-disturbing 18%).  The study’s flaws (there are many which I may write about later) aside, I can’t imagine it will do much good.  The issue of eating meat remains an “exception” issue.  What other human practice—so grossly destructive of our planet and the things that live on it—is considered “off the table” for legislative action?

There are many ways to dance around the issue, to try to create alternatives to meat or put forth environmental or health arguments for vegetarianism.  Ultimately, though, change will only come when we—as individuals, as societies, and as a species—come to grips with the fundamental question: is it right or wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on lesser—but nonetheless sentient—beings?

Everything else is a distraction.

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