Early in April, I listened to a recent episode of “Making Sense,” a podcast hosted by Sam Harris. His guests were Bruce Friedrich and Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute (GFI). They were there to talk about how we might all go about saving the world from climate disaster. Host and guests alike agreed that production and consumption of animal-based foods is a major contributor to the climate crisis. An important part of the solution—or the solution itself—would therefore involve Americans switching from the output of animal agriculture to some other source of protein. But what?
Sam Harris, at the beginning of the interview, asked both guests to explain how they came to focus at GFI on the problem of global health concerns, including climate change and pandemics. GFI is an organization that invests in foods that could change the world. Such foods include cultured meat (i.e., meat that comes from an animal’s biopsied cells, cultured in a laboratory into beef, pork, and other animal-based food) and vegan meats (such as the Beyond Burger). I expected Bruce, whom I consider a friend, to say that he had worked for a long time in advocacy intended to protect animals from harm.
Just a few years before he started GFI, he worked at Farm Sanctuary. He once arranged for me to be invited there to give a lecture about my book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? I signed (and sold) more copies at that event than at any other. The book answers thirteen questions that nonvegans often pose to vegans, including “where do you get your protein?” and “why not just be a vegetarian?” In the interview with Sam Harris, however, I could easily have missed the fact that Bruce had long been a champion for animals and that his compassion for animals was undoubtedly part of why he co-created GFI.
Later in the interview, I learned why Bruce might have de-emphasized the role of animal rights and veganism in his journey. He said that after studying the matter for a while, he determined that individuals are generally unwilling to change their eating habits, even if those habits are in tension with their ethics. The percentage of the population that is vegan has remained constant for a while, and that shows that instead of trying to persuade individuals to change the way they eat, we need instead to provide them with something to eat that tastes the same or better and costs the same or less than the foods they already love.
Both Bruce and his colleague at GFI spoke of this observation in less crude terms, invoking System 1 and System 2 thinking. However, the bottom line was this: most people will not shift their eating based on moral considerations, so we just have to make ethical eating virtually identical to or better than unethical eating if we want to bring the vast majority of humanity along.
The Meaning of Identical
GFI invests generously in plant-based/vegan food products that resemble meat in taste, smell, and texture. At this stage, one can have the full hamburger, sausage or chicken tenders experience with cuisine made entirely from plants. Indeed, there is now plant-based salmon and tuna sushi, shrimp, and varied cultured cheeses as well as eggs. My teaching assistant last week reported to me seeing a sandwich at the local bagel place made with Just Egg (vegan egg), Beyond Sausage, and melted vegan cheese (I believe Violife). Even dedicated meat eaters have sung the praises of such foods, and the foods are indeed scrumptious. And yet the carnivorous admirers remain dedicated meat eaters. Why?
I agree with Bruce that people prefer not to change. I also share the view that the individual is more likely to become vegan or surrender animal foods if the alternative is identical. This is why, if I am buying my favorite cereal and the packaging of the familiar brand has changed, I find it comforting to see the reassurance on the box that although it has new packaging, the product is the same great cereal I know and love. We are all creatures of habit to some degree, even those of us who crave novelty on occasion.
The question, however, is what it means to say that the new product is identical to the old. An old friend of my daughter’s, whom I would describe as a meataholic, loved a particular brand of vegan chicken tenders. She said it was just like real chicken but even tastier. So flavor and texture are an important part of being identical. No one is going to experience a turnip as identical to a hamburger.
But now that we have so many vegan versions of just about every type of animal food, why isn’t my daughter’s old friend vegan? I have not seen her in a while, so I am uncomfortable confronting her with this question. I would guess, however, that she enjoys the idea of what she is eating: an actual chicken, meat from an actual cow or pig, cheese made from cow’s milk, etc.
It isn’t that she is a sadist and likes to imagine the suffering and slaughter of the animals she consumes. She has just, for all of her life, thought of the foods she loves as coming from animals. There’s a wholesomeness (however counterfeit) in that thought. Though she might enjoy the flavor and texture of a vegan product, she eventually wants what she is used to eating, and that includes the knowledge that what she is eating is the flesh of a real animal. She feels connected to the “genuine” experience of consuming animal products.
Why do I dwell on this hypothetical reason my daughter’s old friend might have for wanting to eat meat notwithstanding the vegan alternatives? Because if I am correct, it means that part of what people don’t want to “give up” in eating meat has nothing to do with what is actually in front of them on the plate. It is a thought, a flight of imagination.
If you doubt that a person’s imagination plays a role in how much they value something, consider how much money people are willing to shell out for a genuine painting by a renowned artist. A skilled painter could copy the original painting and create something very similar or even approaching something identical. But no one would pay millions of dollars for a copy of the Mona Lisa. They want the real thing, and they want to be able to think “I own the real Mona Lisa.” There is nothing one can do to satisfy someone who simply must have the original because even molecular identity won’t do the trick.
Think about what that means. The two paintings could be essentially the same in every way. And yet the experience of gazing at a copy is going to be different from the experience of taking in the original. The experience reflects not only the facts of what one is consuming but also one’s imagination. Just consider how you would feel if you were eating something that you considered delicious only to learn that it was actually the meat of a beagle. If you are like most people, your face would suddenly reflect disgust. Identity is in part in the mind of the beholder.
Take a consumer who enjoys “real” animal meat best even if he acknowledges that Beyond Meat is fantastic and very similar. That consumer continues to eat animal products most days notwithstanding the availability of alternatives. Now what happens when Bruce approaches this consumer with cultured meat and says “here, this is real meat from a real animal.” The consumer might ask “what’s so great about this meat?” And Bruce would have to tell him that this meat originates with a biopsy taken from an animal (a pig, a cow, a chicken) and then cultured in the laboratory and grown into meat.
“A BIOPSY?!” the consumer might respond. “I got a biopsy when my dermatologist thought I might have skin cancer. That kind of biopsy?” Bruce would then explain that the reason for the biopsy is different. When the consumer had his procedure, it was to allow the doctor to get a closer look at the suspicious cells on the patient’s body. The biopsy of the animal is to enable the scientist to grow real meat in the laboratory.
The consumer might well find the prospect of eating cells grown from a biopsy in the laboratory far less appetizing than vegan chicken tenders. But what if it tastes the same as meat from a slaughtered animal? “The same” is again a tricky concept. If you are thinking “this came from a biopsy on a cow followed by a cell culture in a laboratory,” you might have a very different experience of the food than you would in eating a conventional burger. Purveyors of the latter have succeeded in creating a positive feeling about their product, despite the reality of the slaughterhouse.
I do not mean to suggest that cultured meat will not take off. It might, and if it does, it could spare billions of animals lives of misery and pain followed by grotesque and terrifying deaths. And if it is cheaper than meat from the slaughterhouse and objectively tastes the same or better, it could spell a major shift away from conventional meat. But if GFI is putting a tremendous amount of into cultured meat because of the “identity” between cultured and slaughter-based meat, it may be in for a rude awakening.
A study showed that wine drinkers say that the same wine tastes better when they believe it is expensive than when they think it is cheap. Similarly, folks who feel attached to steak, chicken, fish, cheese, and eggs might believe that their food tastes better when it comes from the slaughterhouse. That is not a reason to give up, but it may be a reason to actually tell people what Bruce left out during the interview, the moral basis for veganism.
It is the reason why many of us have chosen to distance ourselves from the slaughterhouse. Morality may yet have a role to play in the battle to fight climate change and pandemics and to protect defenseless animals from being isolated from their loved ones, physically injured, terrified, and finally subjected to a horrific death. Vegan chicken tenders might taste that much better when we imagine roosters and hens living their lives in safety and peace, miles away from any slaughterhouse.