Towards the abolition of animal farming

A technological solution is in sight to free us from millennia of barbarity.

“Yes I eat cow/ I am not proud” — Kurt Cobain

I love meat. As a Texan I pride myself on my steak-grilling abilities, but I have to admit the Argentinians have us beat. I love siu yuk, Italian sausage pizza, kurobuta chashu. I will load down my hot pot with beef until the other people at the table complain. Kalbi is wonderful, as is yakiniku. A good burger is priceless — I always eat it rare. Ribs of all kinds are amazing. Duck is great in a bowl of ramen. Fried chicken is the most perfect food combination ever invented. Texas still has the best barbecue in the country, but Brooklyn is surprisingly strong.

And here is another thing that’s true: Animal farming is a barbaric, morally hideous practice. Pigs are confined in tiny stalls for their entire lives, forced to stand in their own feces, malnourished and force-fed hormones and tortured until they turn to cannibalism. Living chickens are vacuumed into giant machines, dairy cows regularly abused, free range cattle castrated without painkillers. And all this as a prelude to being slaughtered. The farming industry is the kind of industrialized, mass nightmare of torture and cruelty that, when done to human beings, acquires the status of totemic evil. Yet because we do it to animals instead of humans, we don’t think twice about it.

Animals are not humans. Though a substantial number of people say “animals should be given the same rights as people” in surveys, in practice only the wackiest fringe activists would reorder society so as to put a pig’s happiness on par with a human being’s. I certainly would not. But to countenance and excuse the nightmare of our farming industry requires that we put effectively zero weight on the happiness of pigs and cows and other animals. It requires that we tell ourselves that they don’t matter even a tiny, tiny bit. To place even the slightest moral importance on the life experience of a pig requires admitting that our society is based on a monstrous, systematized horror.

And if you look at the direction that morality in advanced nations is headed, it’s clear that concern for animals’ welfare is increasing. Animal Precinct, a show valorizing police who rescue abused animals, has been on the air for 20 years. Governments and individuals are fighting hard to get service animals out of Afghanistan. Abuse of pets is rapidly becoming the universal market of evil in the stories we tell.

In other words, to morally countenance the practice of animal farming, we are forced to tell ourselves that a pig’s well-being matters infinitely less than a dog’s or a cat’s. We draw bright lines between the animals we care for and protect and turn into members of our family and the other animals that we systematically brutalize and torture in order to devour their flesh.

Of course, making that kind of arbitrary and absolute distinction is very hard, so we make it easier on ourselves by just not thinking about it. We keep the animals we torture far away from ourselves, tended by a special dedicated class of workers. Out of sight, out of mind, like the Germans in World War 2 who pretended not to know about the death camp down the road. That way, only very occasionally, when confronted with an uncomfortable reminder of our crime, are we forced to trot out our flimsy halfhearted rationalizations (“Those animals wouldn’t even be alive if we didn’t raise them to eat them”, “Even if I stopped eating meat, demand for farming wouldn’t really go down by much”, and so on).

We do this because it is psychologically necessary for us to do this. We are not going to give up eating meat. Only 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian, and 3% as vegan. This is slightly down from previous decades. Like people throughout history, we countenance barbarity because taking action to remove ourselves from it is simply not worth curbing our personal pleasure and convenience. I am certainly not going to stop eating meat. And the reason is that I am a monster.

And of course the moral monstrosity of animal farming is hardly the only problem with the system — it’s also a gigantic source of carbon emissions. Cattle farming, especially, gives rise to enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, much of which is due to forests being cleared for grazing (so much for your vision of happy cows living out truncated lives in relative freedom!).

Thus, there are both moral and practical reasons to abolish the practice of animal farming. But, as with climate change in general, people are generally not willing to put their money where their mouth is.

So given these grim numbers and even grimmer moral realities, why am I optimistic about the possibility of abolishing animal farming? Because, as with climate change and many other problems, technological progress is changing the tradeoffs we face. Within my lifetime, it may be possible for humanity to relegate animal farming to the history books, without seriously inconveniencing our selfish lifestyles.

The technological solution: Artificial meat

When I say “artificial meat”, I don’t mean plant-based substitutes like the Impossible Burger (I don’t expect these to make a big dent in meat consumption). I mean meat that is grown directly using chemical processes, instead of growing a whole animal and cutting off its muscles. I mean what they call “lab-grown meat”, though it eventually won’t be grown in a lab. Tissue-culture meat, grown in a factory instead of a factory farm.

My Bloomberg colleague Amanda Little has a good column about the possibilities of this technology. Unlike meat grown on an animal, tissue-culture meat can be grown in just a few weeks (and that number may come down). Tissue-culture meat is far less likely to be infected by bacteria, parasites, and so on, and it’s much better for the environment. And theoretically, the cost of producing muscle tissue directly, without also having to produce bone and skin and brains and all the rest — not to mention the savings in terms of land use — seems like it could be lower for tissue-culture meat than for animal farming.

And crucially, tissue-culture meat is real meat. These are animal muscle cells, without the animal. Of course, getting fat into the muscle in a realistic way — reproducing the marbling in your steak — is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

Of course, the cost advantage still just theoretical. In practice, although costs are coming down, tissue-culture meat is still vastly more expensive than the animal-grown variety. It’s starting to hit the shelves in a very few places, but it’s going to be a prohibitively expensive delicacy for many years to come. Some of the cost problem will go away when the industry is scaled up, but there are still plenty of fundamental technological challenges to overcome.

Keep in mind, though, this was also true of solar power, once upon a time. When Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof, it really was a gimmick — the technology was nowhere near cheap enough to be feasible as the basis for our electrical needs. Fast forward four decades, and solar has come down in cost by a factor of 400 — enough to be competitive with fossil fuels.

Now there’s no ironclad guarantee that a similar feat will be possible with tissue-culture meat. Not every conceivable thing can be invented and produced at low cost. But the encouraging recent progress in the field merits a lot of investment. Some of this will be provided by venture capital — funding for tissue-culture meat startups is skyrocketing, and is now in the billions of dollars.

But that’s not enough; government must get in on this game, and shovel money into the sector. One reason, of course, is climate change — since climate change is an externality, private companies don’t have sufficient incentive to invest in emissions-reducing technologies like tissue-culture meat. But there’s also the moral aspect of the issue — only once acceptable substitutes become price-competitive will humankind abandon the barbaric practice of animal farming.

In fact, there’s an important precedent for this: Forced labor. Even a cursory reading of history will show that forced human labor of one sort or another was incredibly common throughout human history, in essentially every society, and formed the basis of many social arrangements, values, traditions, and cultures. But nowadays, though a bit of forced labor still exists, it has become a relatively rare phenomenon. The reason, of course, is mechanization. It’s cheaper to have machines do our farming and move our ships and carry our water than to force humans to do this work for us. And so we have allowed society to anathematize forced human labor. Once we could maintain our consumption lifestyles without it, we allowed ourselves to embrace a morality that forbade what we no longer needed.

Humans — or at least, most humans — are monstrous, but not infinitely so. I love meat, and I’m eager to switch to the tissue-cultured variety. After tissue-culture meat becomes cheaper than animal-farmed meat, there will be holdouts who insist that they won’t eat “fake” meat, just as there are now people who refuse Covid vaccines and insist on blasting diesel smoke into the air. But these people will be increasingly ostracized, and over time their numbers will dwindle. Part of this will be economic, as animal farming shrinks and loses its economies of scale, and the cost of eating animal meat goes up. But part will be a shift in our moral norms.

Morality is a coordination game — once a critical number of people accept that animal farming is barbaric and wrong, fence-sitters will hop on the bandwagon, and there will be a cascade effect where in just a short space of time, animal farming will go from broadly accepted to anathematized. In the resulting equilibrium, only iconoclasts and contrarians will insist on eating meat cut from the bones of real animals. And eventually, anti-animal-cruelty crusaders — many of whom would have been perfectly comfortable making excuses for eating the products of factory farms just a few decades ago, in a different social context — will succeed in banning animal farming in most areas, and that will effectively be the end of it.

This future must be our goal. There is nothing dystopian or unnatural about it — it is just another step in the centuries-long process of a monstrous species using its intelligence and ingenuity to allow itself to be a little less monstrous. Since we’re too hideous to do the right thing and give up animal farming today, we must do the next-best thing: Work to replace it with something cheaper and more delicious as soon as we possibly can.