“Their slice of the global pie is very small. The big picture is that alternative proteins are good for the animal agriculture industry if we use the competitive momentum they are creating to foster adoption of innovation to grow the total value of the protein pie.”
— Renée A. Vassilos, from her presentation, How alternative proteins can support the animal agriculture industry
“All that glitters is not gold,” was the message that stuck with me for weeks after watching the debate on clean meat in March at the Conscious Eating Conference. Sporting a pirate hat and cape, Professor John Sanbonmatsu opened his talk with a pun on the word pyrite — otherwise known as fool’s gold — which he honored by dressing up as pirate. The play on pyrite-pirate warmed up the audience to consider Sanbonmatsu’s compelling critique of the current state of clean meat advocacy. I watched the whole 2-hour debate and carefully considered all sides. I still have much to learn about this complex subject, which the more optimistic proponents claim could save billions of animals, but there is much room for skepticism and more careful consideration. “All that glitters is not gold” was the cautionary reality check that led me and many others to think more critically about the rosy rhetoric of clean meat we’ve been seeing so much of in the media.
Of all the valid points I heard discussed in the debate, one concern resonated with me the most which I focus exclusively on in this short post: the prospect of meat conglomerates buying up the technology and the rights from smaller startups in an effort to control if and how these products are ever marketed and sold. The worst case scenario would be a “catch and kill” strategy in which they buy it up only to shelve it, thereby preventing those who would otherwise use it to advance some social, public good. Another scenario is that they price it out of reach and use scarcity appeal tactics that we see them often use to market boutique or luxury products. The reality is that corporations are engaged in a variety of hostile takeovers, such as cornering the market on ice cream (Unilever buying out Ben & Jerry’s), lobbying hard to outright own words such as “meat” and “milk” and, even worse, working to exclusively own plants like neem (for its medicinal properties) which has been used for thousands of years in India.
As Sanbonmatsu cautions, the meat industry has clearly indicated it has no intention of using clean meat to replace conventional meat. Quite the contrary, it is expanding animal production. It wants to control the market for clean meat so it may reap the benefits should consumer demand grow. But let us not be too naive to recognize that an industry that thinks nothing of shredding millions of chicks alive has any propensity to grow the clean meat market out of some moral compulsion to alleviate animal suffering. Even the conscious capitalist, self-professed vegan and founder of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, has repeatedly justified the corporation’s aggressive promotion of animal products over vegan products as “giving the consumer what they demand.” In other words, even allegedly ethical brands put profits over ethics, and when we pit animals against profits, we know only too well animals lose.
This makes it all the more troubling to me that some leading animal advocates are already getting our expectations up that clean meat could change the fate of billions of animals. To the extent that the technology remains vulnerable prey to the most destructive, violent and immoral industries on the planet, betting on them doing the right thing seems delusional. As Chris Hedges writes, “The corporate forces that control the state will never permit real reform. It would mean their extinction.” In other words, a kinder world is possible, not through begging powerful elites who call the shots and refuse to make any meaningful concessions, but through people-powered movements that demand the change we want.