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

The interview was originally published in The Vegan Strategist

Tobias Leenaert is the author of How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (Lantern Press, 2017). He is the co-founder of the Belgian organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (EVA), advocates veganism at the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA) and is the co-founder of ProVeg International.

Professor Cor Van Der Weele, teaches bioethics, philosophy and philosophy of science in the Department of Communication, Technology and Philosophy at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

TL: 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?
CVDW: 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.

TL: 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?
CVDW: 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.

TL: Should we call labmeat just meat? Is it meat? What makes “meat” “meat” for the average consumer?
CVDW: 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.

TL: 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?
CVDW: 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.

TL: 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?
CVDW: 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.

TL: Another argument against labmeat seems to be that it could impede moral change, because of the promise that technology will solve our problems.
CVDW: 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.

TL: 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.
CVDW: 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.