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

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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.


20 thoughts on “Let them eat labmeat – an interview with professor Cor Van Der Weele

  1. Good post Tobias. I agree with the professor, there are lots of people who feel guilty about eating meat but cant help themselves and block off the truth. If cultured meat was a humane option and tasted good they would go for it. Ultimately that means less animals reared and killed for meat. Its a win win situation. Would I eat it myself, probably not unless it was well hidden in a curry or something although I would be curious about it, but so used to not eating meat now for over 40 years, why start again. Cheers,

  2. Cultured meat would need to be produced in enormous quantities and by sustantially affordable methods that may still take many years to develop. It may also end up being only possible in developed countries. The good news is that developed countries are the big meat-eaters of the world.

    Chicken consumption has not been addressed yet, which surges past meat consumption.

    As a vegan I would never support lab meat nor would I speak out against it as a transition towards plant-based nutrition. I will always be opposed to commodifying sentient beings. If lab-grown animal products became widespread, animals are still needed and would be bred for such purposes. I do not trust the human species yet to respect other species, humans don’t even respect each other.

  3. I am really looking forward to in vitro meat or “shmeat” to come out. I am a meat eater but if given a choice, would rather eat meat that doesn’t harm animals.

  4. Great interview. I’m not interested in lab created meat myself, but I think it’s a great step forward, and since I have no real interest in how “natural” things are, it doesn’t bother me at all. I still tend to think that plant products are healthier, but other than that, I see no reason not to go forward with lab created meat, unless it requires continuous use of animal cell donors. If it’s a one-time thing, great, the suffering of a single creature is far outweighed by all of the animals that would otherwise be harmed. On the other hand, if it required continuous use of animal cell donors, I would be opposed.

  5. “or some reason most people remain attached to meat. Cultured meat, or lab meat, is primarily meant for them.”

    Perhaps one should spend some time figuring out why most people attached to meat? One would have to know the answer to this question to know whether lab-meat would be a reasoned alternative. And what reason do we have to believe that people would prefer lab-meat over plant-derived meat alternatives or just nutritionally balanced plant-based dishes? After all, everyone already eats plant foods……..where as lab-meat has a significant yuck factor that would take a huge marketing effort to over-come. And its not like the meat-industry will standard around with their thumbs in their butt, they will demonize lab-meat…..which won’t take much effort.

    Focusing on lab-meat could significantly backfire if the technology doesn’t develop as planned, even if it does develop……it still may never become mainstream due to marketing and cultural challenges.

    One could look to the diamond industry for some clues, synthetic diamonds are available…..yet the “real thing” is still preferred even-though the diamond industry is riddled with ethical issues. Food just isn’t about taste….its about status as well. Ironically, the more efficient lab-meat is….the higher status “the real thing” is likely to have.

  6. Excellent interview–thank you for this. I find especially interesting the Professor’s statement that “It’s important to realize that change does not necessarily need to start with clear moral attitudes.” There’s something to cogitate on!

  7. I think this is a very important development. Look, I eat meat, but I don’t like factory farming. And cultured meat is the alternative I have been waiting since I found out about factory farming and cloned tissue.

    We already are considering doing that to recreate organs in the human body, why not applying it to food?

    Not everyone wants to cease eating meat, even while aware and uncomfortable with the harsh facts about it’s production, but with this, it is a win win situation.

    My ideal end goal would be something like the Star Trek replicators, and this is a right step in that direction.

  8. Meat really does contribute to climate change and global warming MORE than the transport industry COMBINED. There is no light-hearted way to say this. Whatever path people take, we must leave animal products off our plates if you care even a little about humanity, if you care about people – millions are starving because we are feeding all our grain to the animals, look it up, really, we are contributing to STARVATION. Please don’t use the argument that we should ‘focus on bigger problems like women’s rights, hunger” because you DO support those horrible things by NOT participating in it. Climate problems are, in the end, social problems. Strife, food and water insecurity lead to the strongest of tribes/villages to start stealing, hogging food, this all leads to women being terribly disadvantaged, with children, this is not the dark ages, please do your research, anyone with a laptop can educate themselves about the horrors of the meat/dairy/egg animal product industries everywhere. Please learn about these things. Do you really have an excuse not to?

    1. Elizabeth,

      Agriculture contributes more green house gases than transportation *globally*, but in the United States (and similarly for other developed nations) agriculture contributes a relatively small share of its total green house gas output. In the US agriculture, as a whole, only contributes around 9% of total emissions…..in contrast transportation is around 26%. So for someone in a developed country, it makes more sense to focus on using less electricity, driving less, etc….than it does to worry about what is on their plate. But if you were to worry what was on your plate, well, its really just cattle related food products that are the issue…..other animal products have a relatively low environmental foot-print.

      And the “meat-eaters are causing starvation” argument is even worse, that would only make sense if global food production has reached maximum food output…..but that is nowhere near being the case. Global hunger is an economic problem…..not a food production problem.

      I’m always amused how veganism is presented as a solution to the worlds problems.

      1. Veganism is.a solution to the world’s problems – surely you’ve learnt that by now, Mr Toad.

    2. Elizabeth – have you ever asked why grain is being fed to cows when cows eat grass? Answer – because in the US corn is highly subsidised, produced as cheaply as possible, produced en masse, and feeding it to animals turns profit for agri-business. Take the animals out of the picture, and that corn will only find its way into human stomachs *if* a profit can be turned. Furthermore, this mass agriculture has horrendous environmental consequences, and American grain flooding markets in the developing world decimates local, small-scale farming, driving agarians into cities to become more of the hungry poor. It’s tough but the world is complicated, unless ofcourse you are looking at it with vegan myopia.

  9. I really hope this works out. Many people don’t know, or choose NOT to find out that animal production for meat/dairy/eggs/wool/fur/skin etc. is the single biggest contribution to global warming, go to cowspiracy.com/facts and see. Watch the documentary ‘Cowspiracy.’ I guarantee many will be shocked at what they are unaware of. Climate issues are ultimately social issues, people will start turning on the disadvantaged to get depleting resources of food, water etc. – that means women, children will all be in such dangerous positions. This is already happening. Strife, wars, and battles are already starting due to a lack of resources. Please do the research, check out the vegan activist. any youtubers and articles online to help you understand the massive scale problem of this industry.

  10. Tobias, what is your thoughts on the article I linked below? Please read it if you haven’t yet.

    1. hi zaya,
      some quick comments on that article:
      – i appreciate that it’s well researched and unpacks the complexity of the issue
      – like she writes, we may develop self replicating stem cells along the way. but even if not, i think there is a way to harvest these cells from creatures that had a good life and don’t need to be killed. like we would get them from the best treated companion animals. at least in theory this is possible.
      – like she writes, alternatives for the growth serum are being developped. i heard mark post say that it functions almost as well (though not quite) as the fetal blood serum (which indeed sounds like a horrible thing)

      So i still don’t see much of an argument to be against these developments at all…

      1. Yes, you are right. I will always support these developments too unless they cause any exploitation and suffering of sentient animals. I just wanted to share that article with you and the followers of this blog. Thank you very much for reading and commenting on it.

      2. I don’t think its so much an argument to be “against the developments” but instead the value in talking about them, promoting them, etc……before they’ve actually been developed and proven to be commercially viable. People already eat plants and are comfortable eating plants…why not talk about that for now and leave this to the scientists and business folks?

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