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THE NEVER-ENDING STORY: Once we have lab-grown meat, will we still need animal advocacy?

Both technology and ethics have a role to play in making substantive change for animals. Not only that, but they are more powerful when deployed together than independently.

BRIAN KATEMAN: Once considered science fiction, reserved only for members of the Star Trek universe, meat à la in vitro is poised to become available to mere Earthlings across the globe. For many animal advocates—including me—this is welcome news. “Here’s a technology designed to re-humanize us, putting mankind’s brilliance and ingenuity in service to our gentler side,” writes Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy in National Review…

In today’s U.S. factory farms, 9 billion land animals are raised annually in the cruelest of conditions. Pregnant pigs spend nearly four months in metal enclosures so small they are unable to turn around; chickens grow so abnormally large that their legs break under their own weight; and cows are branded, dehorned, and castrated, typically with no pain relief. And after a lifetime of torture, a gruesome slaughter awaits.

For decades, activists have been disseminating information about this moral crisis to the general public—shouting into megaphones, handing out leaflets, delivering presentations in schools, sharing videos online, etc.—but for the most part, it has fallen on deaf ears… But with the exception of a few vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians, the many among them who could change their eating habits just don’t care enough to actually do so…

Does that mean that we need to rely on technology instead of moral appeals to achieve these ethical aims? It certainly looks that way. Consider what happened to horses in cities like New York. By the mid-19th century, horsecars (horse-drawn streetcars on rails) had become one of the most popular forms of transportation…

The plight of the horses might have gone unnoticed had it not been for Henry Bergh. Inspired by his observations of poor horse treatment, in 1866 he founded the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to fight on their behalf. Though Bergh did garner some support for his advocacy efforts, he was widely ridiculed because he was perceived as putting the interests of horses above humans. Indeed, in the end, it was another Henry who liberated horses from the streets of New York: Ford. His success in commercializing the car and internal combustible engine relieved the horses of their title as beasts of burden…

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that many proponents of cell-cultured meat advocate for a similar approach. Take Bruce Friedrich, a staunch believer in market-based solutions. He used to work at PETA—where he engaged in stunts like streaking in front of Buckingham Palace. But feeling that his efforts were futile, stating “we’ve tried to convince the world to go vegan, and it has not worked,” he co-founded The Good Food Institute, where he now leverages capitalism to achieve the same ends. “Our goal is to take ethical considerations off the table” Friedrich says… But there are also a few ways in which this strategy doesn’t quite sit right with me.

First, there’s no guarantee that cell-cultured meat will actually take off. While it’s reached major milestones so far, there are numerous obstacles to commercialization still in its path… while cell-cultured meat companies have made numerous ground meat products—burgers, nuggets, patties, etc.—more complex cuts like steak and pork loin are only in the experimental stage. And then there’s getting regulatory approval..

Second, leveraging moral arguments can help facilitate technological innovation. Though many entrepreneurs and investors are going to be motivated by the potential for financial gain, some will undoubtedly be motivated by the larger mission. Indeed, many of today’s cell-cultured meat companies were founded and backed by animal advocates…

Third, even if cell-cultured meat could become a widespread reality without moral appeals, there are consequences to using technological solutions for problems that have a moral component. If we end factory farming in this way, that will do nothing to prevent us from exploiting animals in all sorts of other ways that are beneficial to us—some existing (e.g., circuses, zoos, animal testing, etc.)..

This would essentially amount to what we have achieved in the past, which is effectively a game of ethical Whack-A-Mole: We’d be ending exploitation of one group of animals in one context, only to see another form of oppression remain or pop up. This will be because we haven’t been able to build a moral ethic of not harming animals. This is exemplified by the glaring fact that while horses may no longer be attached to streetcars in New York City, they still give tourists carriage rides…

Relying solely on technologies like cell-cultured meat to disrupt the conventional meat market would be a strategic mistake. The reality is that there’s still a chance that continuing moral appeals could change the zeitgeist such that people begin to view all animals as being worthy of moral consideration. We may someday realize that Bergh and other activists like him were instrumental in planting the seeds that led to such a shift in consciousness.

So the takeaway for me is this: Both technology and ethics have a role to play in making substantive change for animals. Not only that, but they are more powerful when deployed together than independently… We may never strike the exact right balance. But if we at least invest in both approaches to a meaningful degree, in time we may discover that the impossible was possible after all. SOURCE…

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