Let them eat labmeat – an interview with professor Cor Van Der Weele

I believe that labmeat (also called cultured meat or in vitro meat) is one of the current developments that holds the biggest promises for animals. Professor Cor Van Der Weele, at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands – a country at the forefront of these developments – has been researching the topic for years. She has a degree in both biology and philosophy. I asked her some questions about labmeat, and presented her with some of the objections part of the vegan community may have…

foto: annemieke van der togt
foto: annemieke van der togt

VS: One thing I often hear is that we already have so many vegetarian/vegan options available (from tofu to really good veggieburgers). So why do we need labmeat?
Cor Van Der Weele: In spite of all those good options, for some reason most people remain attached to meat. Cultured meat, or lab meat, is primarily meant for them.

I can see that. But suppose we have a plant-based vegan product that is indistinguishable from real meat, and that has the same or better nutritional value, price, texture, etc. Why would some people be more convinced by lab meat? And how big do you think that segment is?
That would in fact be a very interesting experiment. The fascinating thing about the existence of various alternatives is that they help to unravel the complicated mix of motives people can have to eat meat – such as taste, price, habit, health, and various other considerations about eating animals. Maybe for some dedicated meat eaters, cultured meat would be closer to “the real thing.” I suspect that the size of that segment would be different in different countries. It would also depend on framing and marketing, and it would probably grow smaller over time.

Should we call labmeat just meat? Is it meat? What makes “meat” “meat” for the average consumer?
I don’t think it should be called just “meat.” Cultured meat would be meat in that it is made up of animal cells, but it would obviously also be very different from ordinary meat in some crucial ways. Studies show again and again that many meat eaters are ambivalent about (real) meat. One form that this ambivalence takes is that people like to eat meat but at the same time dislike factory farming and/or the idea that animals need to be killed for meat. The development of cultured meat implies that we accept that people like meat, while we hope to produce it without doing harm to animals. Because there are these differences between meat and cultured meat that many consumers find morally important, they should be able to make the distinction.
Cultured meat can be seen as a step away from ordinary meat: too small a step for some, too large a step for others, but in all cases a step that puts conventional meat in a new light.

Do you believe that, as some critics say, labmeat will alienate us even more from our food and from nature? If yes, in what way is that a concern?
Making cultured meat is “unnatural,” but then, how natural is factory farming? I think that the way we deal with animals in factory farming is very alienating, and that cultured meat, produced from a harmless biopsy taken from animals that have had good lives, would be a big improvement. Further, cultured meat needs far less land. It therefore potentially creates more space for re-naturing the world.

You write about “strategic ignorance”: the attitude of people to willfully not know something or be misinformed about something, because the truth is too hard to bear. The way I see it, one part of the fear (apart from the confrontation with suffering and killing) is the fear that people would miss out on a lot of great food if they really opened themselves up to knowing about animal suffering. Would you agree that developing alternatives like labmeat would be able to partially break down this strategic ignorance?
Yes, certainly. What we saw in focus groups is that the idea of cultured meat made meat eaters discuss what they did not like about meat. The very idea of cultured meat triggers a new feeling of moral room and moral options.

Another argument against labmeat seems to be that it could impede moral change, because of the promise that technology will solve our problems.
I understand the idea; it would make us wait and see. And in part, that is what many people are already doing: they are ambivalent about meat, which may make them perhaps slowly more open to alternatives, but they are no pioneers. I don’t claim to really understand social change but I do know that it is hardly following straight lines. For example, all these ambivalent people who are meat lovers when you look at their behavior but who are not very positive about meat below the surface, what will they do when a really attractive alternative turns up? In this complex field, cultured meat can have an influence as an idea, as a definite product in itself, or as a temporary option on the way from meat to plant-based substitutes.

Part of the vegan community may fear that labmeat won’t change the way we view animals; that it won’t teach us that animals are not ours to use.
I disagree, that’s exactly what cultured meat will do. I think it effectively undermines the self-evidence of how we deal with animals, and I am convinced that it will make a difference, whether or not we are looking for it. It’s important to realize that change does not necessarily need to start with clear moral attitudes. In some cases, people adopt attitudes that accompany the behavior that they are already demonstrating. In this case, this might mean that when people get used to eating cultured meat, the idea of factory farming or killing animals may gradually become stranger and less acceptable.

 

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

This is a guest post by Hillary Rettig. Hillary is author of The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006) and other works. She has been a vegan and vegan activist since 2004, and is currently organizer of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of IDA’s Sustainable Activism Council. She will be speaking on joyful and effective vegan activism at VegFest Colorado.

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

In 2004, I “instantly” became vegan at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C. It was my first-ever animal rights event; I can’t remember my exact motivation for going, except that I was a lifelong animal lover who was looking to create some change in my life.

Needless to say, it was a mind- (and heart-) opening experience that culminated for me during a screening of Tribe of Heart’s classic Peaceable Kingdom. Like many others, when I saw the scenes of brutalized animals and dehumanized laborers, I wanted nothing to do with any of it—and so, within literally seconds of the movie’s end, I called my then-husband and told him I was vegan.

So, instant conversion.

Or, maybe not.

My conversion actually came after a lifetime of a profound love for animals, and decades of on-and-off vegetarianism.

It was also built on a foundation of a decades-long commitment to social justice.

And the conference itself—an intensive, immersive multiday investigation into, and celebration of, all things animal rights and vegan—was an incredible kickstarter for my new ethic and life. I learned lots, and met amazing people who, more than a decade later, continue to be friends and mentors.

So I was primed, as the psychologists say, for conversion and success. I’m guessing that most so-called “instant conversions” are similar—meaning that they’re not really instant. Moreover, I didn’t even become “fully vegan” at that time. Probably more like 99%. For years afterwards, despite my best intentions, I would, about once a month, feel compelled to eat a nonvegan candy bar or dish of comfort food. This mainly happened during times of stress and was part of an emotional eating problem I’ve struggled with my whole life.

I’m happy to report, though, that that phase passed. Now I’m probably a 99.9% vegan.

I’m not claiming to be a moral exemplar. Perhaps there are people who do, indeed, switch from carnism to to 99.9%, or even 99.99%, veganism overnight. If there are, however, I’m guessing the number is pretty small. And does anyone ever really make it to 100%? I’m not sure that’s even possible, given the pervasiveness of animal-derived products in our food, medical, household, and other spheres.

perfection1

Some vegans don’t see it that way. They demand instant and eternal perfection of all vegans. I’m guessing they see themselves as maintaining the standard, which I do think is a valuable role. I also imagine they’re afraid that people, if “permitted” to take baby steps or “allowed” the occasional lapse, will grow complacent and continue (or restart) eating animal products. However, psychological research actually indicates that, in diet and other areas, it’s the people who try to make too many changes at once who are more likely to backslide or even give up entirely. In Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” She recommends dieters, “…take things one food group at a time.”

It’s pretty universally accepted that, if your goal is to motivate people, demanding perfection is a dead end. As the late renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “I did talk about perfection [to my players]. I said it was not possible. But I said it’s not impossible to try for it. That’s what we did in every practice and game.” (I’m also guessing he didn’t expect senior-level performance from his freshman, but worked with them to achieve gradual improvement via the baby steps.). Some research among vegetarians and vegans also seems to indicate that the people who don’t change overnight, tend to stick to it longer.*

Overnight conversions are highly meaningful from the standpoint of the animals saved, but useless as moral exemplars for a few reasons. First, it’s pretty clear that the ability to easily change one’s diet is uncommon. That’s why there’s a $65 billion weight loss industry in the U.S. and a global obesity epidemic. Forget about asking many of these people to go vegan (or more vegan) to save animals’ lives; they can’t do it even to save their own life.

Moreover, people struggle with their food for many reasons, some of which are evolutionary, genetic, and societal, and thus largely outside their individual control. (I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and the chapter on barriers is forty pages long.)

In other words, those who are able to convert quickly are not just virtuous but also lucky—and perhaps luck is the more relevant characteristic.

And then we come to the perfection-seekers’ main tactics: guilt-trips and shaming. Think about it: if those truly worked, wouldn’t there be a lot more thin people? And vegans? Many overweight people, and probably some imperfect or lapsed vegans, lay a lot of shame and guilt on themselves every day. (And the fat shaming that one occasionally sees in the vegan community is not just a disgrace and a violation of ahimsa (nonharm), but is also counterproductive.)

None of the above should be construed to mean that we shouldn’t, like Wooden’s players, aim for perfection, and support others in their quest for it. Like all human endeavors, however, veganism will inevitably always be both a shining model of what is possible and a daily practice at which fallible humans in challenging circumstances inevitably fall short. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

And I’ll leave you with a final quote from Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

* see also Haverstock and Forgays, “To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters.” Appetite 58, 2012.

 

What if the real push towards a vegan world did not come from vegans?

Last Saturday, I attended a talk by the Dutch entrepreneur-farmer Jaap Korteweg, who founded the Vegetarian Butcher (Vegetarische Slager) in the Netherlands. What started as a small but very well branded shop, is now a major vegetarian/vegan product line with hundreds of distribution points in the Netherlands, and – soon – a proper factory. Products by the Vegetarian Butcher have won numerous awards, and the story has received media attention the world over.

After that, I listened to Mark Post, the pioneer of cultured (in vitro) meat, also from the Netherlands. Post is the researcher who three years ago presented the first lab grown meat burger to the media in London – which was one of the biggest stories about meat and its problems in the history of this movement.

Mark Post
Mark Post

Now. Neither Korteweg nor Post are vegan. The same goes for their investors. The instigator and initial funder of Mark Post’s research, the recently deceased Willem Van Eelen, was not even a vegetarian. And neither is, as far as I know, Google’s Sergey Brinn, who gave a 700.000$ donation to Mark Post.

Some of the biggest propagators of the vegan revolution, people with a lot of impact – or future potential impact – are not vegans, nor do they all believe in animal rights. It’s good to realize this for several reasons.

For one thing, it can keep us, vegans, modest. We may be thinking that when the world will finally change for the better for animals, it will be because of our hard work and our ethics. That’s only partially true.

Also, it may help us to see the relativity of some of our own differences in opinion, our ideologies, our philosophizing and theorizing about what, in the larger scheme of things, are often details.

Most of all – and this should be obvious but obviously it’s not – it should make us realize that we should welcome everyone to be part of this movement, vegan or not.

Vegans alone won’t win this battle. It is far too big for that.

 

 

 

Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.

steps

 

Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy

 

Le Botaniste

Some restaurant stuff today. I had lunch in Le Botaniste, in my town of Ghent, Belgium. What’s special about the recently opened Botaniste is that it is an experimental vegan place, run by the people who own the international and world reknowned chain Le Pain Quotidien. LPQ, as it’s known, is especially famous for their long “communal” wooden tables, where you can sit down together with strangers for lunch or tea. The chain was actually founded by a Belgian guy, Alain Coumont.

Coumont started the chain, which now has a couple of hundred restaurants worldwide, in 1990. He’s sort of a visionary, who believes that sooner or later, we’ll all be vegetarian. Coumont has said that the vegetarian movement is a lot bigger than we think, because most vegetarians are quiet people who don’t get to the streets to protest the parliament. He had kind of a revelatory moment when he opened his first LPQ in California and discovered how many people were asking for rice or soy milk with their coffee.

The Pain Quotidien restaurants, which also offer meat, have been carrying vegan labels on their menu items for years. Coumont believes in vegan too, but he doesn’t want to call it that, because he believes for many people it has bad connotations. His own alternative word is “botanical” – hence the name of the new place. There’s a second Botaniste in New York City by now, and on its website you can read that it’s “100% botanical.”

2016-04-07 14.41.59

For the people from Le Pain Quotidien, Le Botanist is a place to experiment and discover what people like. Ghent is a good place for that, as it’s an especially veg-friendly town: it was, at the instigation of EVA, the organization I used to work for, the first city in the world to officially support a weekly vegetarian day (Thursday in our case).

Le Botaniste is not the traditional vegan restaurant, but is presented as a “food and wine bar”: a place where it’s nice to sit and have good food and wine. It’s very much “plant based” rather than “vegan,” but I think this might attract a segment of the population that would otherwise be uninterested in entering. And as I have written often, people who have changed their diet for health or mere culinary reasons, are much more likely to change their attitudes about animals. 

And, in case you want to know: the food was pretty good.

Taste first!

 

Whether we’re talking about cooking vegan dishes for others or producing new vegan alternatives, there are always many criteria we could take into account when deciding what we’re going to serve others. We could keep in mind all kinds of environmental factors and make sure that our meal or product is entirely sustainable, organic, and so on. We can make sure all ingredients are from fair trade. We can pay a lot of attention to the health aspects, like the fat or sugar content.

The list goes on. But if you had to name just one aspect of food (apart from it being vegan) that we should take into account: what would it be?

I say it’s taste.great vegan food

Think about it: if a dish or product is healthy and sustainable and fair etc, but it tastes like crap, most people will not ever order or make it again. If, on the other hand, that same dish or product is tasty but doesn’t meet some, most or all of the other criteria, many people will have it again.

Many people come to vegan food with a lot of prejudices, the most important of which being that it won’t be as tasty as what they are used to. So that is the idea that should be countered in the first place. Personally, I’m prepared to sacrifice some of the other criteria if necessary. I may use lots of salt, sugar or fat, or sometimes even use ingredients that I know are not environmentally the best choices.

I want to get people over the treshold they are wary to cross. I want to take away their misconceptions about vegan food. The best way I can think of how to do that, is to offer them something that tastes great. Taste should be the number one priority for anyone who wants to get anyone to eat differently.

After having tasted how great vegan food can be, in many cases at least part of people’s defensiveness will crumble. Give people great tasting vegan food, and all the rest will become a lot easier.

 

On veggie burgers and thought experiments

Several people commented how the answer to my thought experiment about the yummy veggie burger and the dreadful vegan burger was very obvious: they would recommend that our friend order the veggie burger.

However, to others, this doesn’t appear obvious at all. More than that, some people seem not to understand the value of thought experiments, or what I’m trying to do with them. I’ll use some examples of reactions on a Facebook group to give my view on a couple of things. I’m under no illusion that any of my responses will sway the people who wrote these things, but it may help others to recognize bad arguments when they see them.

So let’s analyse a couple of reactions and see what arguments are being used. I’ll keep the reactions anonymous, as it is not my intention to smear anyone, rather just to get some clarity (I love clarity, I wish there was more of it in my mind.)

I grouped reactions according to the kinds of arguments I see in them, but some reactions could be classified under more than one heading (sadly). I put my comments below each reaction.

Honest reactions (but which express, in my view, bad arguments)

These reactions are correct in the sense that they are to-the-point, and don’t try to change the premises of the thought experiment, are not ad hominem, and so on.

“My objective is not to promote vegan food, my objective is to promote the idea that using animal products is morally wrong. I cannot offer anything that contains animal products by pointing that it does not contain meat, it would be supporting the wrong idea that there is a moral difference between using meat and using other animal products. It is confusing for the nonvegan person and it is counterproductive for the animal rights movement.”

VS: If this person really doesn’t want to recommend anything that’s non-vegan because they believe it’s confusing and counterproductive, and this is his honest view of things, that’s perfectly fine by me. (Even though I don’t think this is a particularly strategic view, in the sense that I explained in the article).

“The idea that ends justifies means is one of the worst ideas in the history, it is not only counterproductive for nonhuman rights, it is counterproductive for all justice movements. It is not morally right to offer or promote a nonvegan burger, even with good intentions.”

VS: The same person abhors the idea of the end justifying the means, and I can understand that. But I would say it’s a moot saying, and I would quote Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: “That perennial question, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?’


Questioning the assumptions in the thought experiment

Many people try to change the premise of the thought experiment. For instance, this person wonders why we need to assume the vegan burger is bad (as if there is no such thing in the universe):

“I would like to order the delicious vegan burger. Why does Tobias assume it’s the vegan one that tastes bad anyhow?”

VS: Ehm, that’s just the assumption that we posit, in order to have something to think about…? Of course vegan burgers are not necessarily bad. I don’t need to explain this one to you I assume.
A thought experiment is meant to create some clarity on one’s assumptions, on the values one finds important, on what one prioritizes. If you go along with the experiment, you can possibly discover interesting ideas. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t change the premise because then the experiment becomes meaningless.


Assuming bad intentions behind my thought experiments

Some people believe I develop these thought experiments to show we don’t have to be vegan, or that being vegan is bad, or whatever. I’ve even been called a troll because indeed these thought experiments may sound like the arguments from meat eaters who try to put us on the spot (which is why some call my thought experiments “gotchas”):

“All his thought experiments are designed to have non-veganism as the optimal outcome.”

“The game is rigged so the best outcome is buying or eating animal products for ‘long term’ gain. Why does he never offer vegan solutions to these problems? This is ridiculous.

VS: My intention is to show there is more to vegan advocacy than just following the vegan orthodoxy, and that results (also long time results) are at this point in time more important than rules. If you want to hear more on this, watch the first video here.

Lennaert [sic] acts like an industry shill.

VS: No comment.


Misrepresenting and misinterpreting my conclusions or recommendations

“I can’t stand to the nonstop nonsense they post on this terrible so-called vegan strategist blog. So according to this blog post, it’s a good vegan strategy to tell our nonvegan friends to eat a nonvegan burger to satisfy their palate pleasure. No, thank you.”

“Seems like he is always trying to undermine a vegan solution. Why does he want vegans to endorse eating or using animals? I’m astonished at vegans promoting this.”

“If vegans always compromise and order an option containing eggs/cheese, or don’t even bother to ask if an item is vegan for fear of making a fuss, then the availability of vegan options will remain poor. ”

I hope I don’t need to show you why these are simplifications and generalizations of my recommendations. I trust that if you read the text, you see that my point is not to never be consistent or demand vegan products (indeed I think opening our mouths and insisting on a vegan option is very important and fruitful). Neither do I want “vegans to endorse eating or using animals”.


Discrediting the person

This is the well known ad hominem or “poisoning the well” argument.

“Tobias is not a moral philosopher by any stretch of the imagination!”

“When will these people who refer to themselves as “vegan” stop referring to other animals as nothing more than recipe ingredients? The lack of respect shown toward other animals, and the message that “our movement is about food” is really depressing.”

This last one I find particularly pernicious and dishonest. It’s something we see a lot these days: the attempt (often while knowing better) to show how a person whose argument we don’t agree with, is not a good person, lacks respect, is a speciesist, etc.


Why the resistance?
The poor quality of most of these arguments, and some people’s inability to deal with the thought experiments, makes me suspect that they really have a problem accepting the logical outcome of the experiment: namely that it IS not always beneficial to stick to your moral philosophy and orthodoxy for the full hundred percent. People seem to want to avoid this in their eyes horrible conclusion at all costs. Maybe the idea that a moral system or a strategy should not always be followed to the letter is scary to some, because it takes away something that gave them security and structure? I’m just guessing.

Anyway, I don’t think that admitting that there maybe exceptions, that not everything is black and white… should be so horrible. I try to show that sometimes the easier way, is the more effective way. What’s so bad about that?

Finally, here’s an argument I can see no logical problems in 🙂

one does not.jpg

I might make my own version though, saying:

“One does not have a big impact on animals simply by becoming vegan.”