For decades, vegans have worked tirelessly to recruit more vegans, but that won’t work. We need a bigger solution to the issues in our food system.
Vegans have tried everything. They have gone undercover on hundreds of farms to document cruelty, produced award-winning documentaries, written books, created YouTube channels, staged thousands of protests, and passed out millions of leaflets to inform people of the damage that animal agriculture does to animals, the planet, and human health.
This has led to a modest increase in the number of vegetarians. In the United States, where we have the best data, it’s grown from perhaps around 1 percent of the population in the 1990s to around 3 to 5 percent in the 2010s, with half of vegetarians saying they are fully vegan, meaning they abstain not just from meat but also from dairy and eggs. This is only a small dent in the mass suffering caused by factory farms: Note that over 99 percent of farmed animals in the United States are in factory farms, as are over 90 percent of the over 100 billion farmed animals globally.
To put it bluntly: Going vegan or vegetarian seems to just be too difficult for most people. Not many are willing to deviate from the status quo and from their habit of eating animals, no matter how strong the moral arguments are or how much vegans advocate for their cause.
This just isn’t how social change works. It’s virtually unheard of for a social movement to succeed through individual consumer change. Social change is almost always accomplished through institutions: governments, companies, non-governmental organizations, and technology.
Fortunately, vegan advocates have an incredible opportunity to change their tactics: clean meat — real meat made from animal cells without animal slaughter — named in homage to clean energy. Scientists are now able to make meat by taking a small sample of cells from a living animal through a biopsy, using a Q-tip swab. These cells are placed in a mixture of nutrients and growth factors that allows them to replicate in the same process that happens inside an animal’s body.
The final product is meat, down to the molecular level. The first clean-meat products are expected to be released commercially — of course, in very limited supply, at least at first — over the next two years. If vegans help cultivate this technology and encourage companies and governments to make the switch, consumers could switch en masse without the need for one-by-one diet advocacy.
We also have sophisticated plant-based foods that, while molecularly distinct from animal flesh, match its taste, texture, and nutritional profile, with a blend of plant ingredients such as pea protein and coconut oil. Availability of these foods — brand names include the Impossible Burger and Beyond Sausage — has already expanded across North America.
Many consumers already can’t tell the difference between these veggie foods and their animal-based alternatives, and of course the former will continue to be improved year after year, and their price to drop. Just as clean energy includes a variety of ethical energy sources, such as the sun and the wind, the term “clean meat” can be used to include all slaughter-free meat, whether made from plants or from animals.
As I argue in my new book The End of Animal Farming, these advances change the battlefield for the vegan movement. No longer will people need to switch out steak for mushrooms, or chicken breast for pinto beans. Instead, they’ll keep eating the foods they want, just without the harm to animals.
Of course, it would be great if people did switch to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, but I think that most people just aren’t willing to make that lifestyle change. Maybe they will in a few decades.
Given the vast inefficiency of making meat from animals — it takes over ten calories of plant-based food to produce one calorie of animal-based food — it seems like clean meat’s becoming cheaper than conventional meat is a matter of when, not if.
The vegan movement should reorient itself over the next decade, switching its primary focus from promoting a vegan lifestyle to promoting the widespread adoption of these new foods. The end of factory farming depends on it. The Impossible Burger is outselling conventional burgers in many of the restaurants where it’s served, and White Castle, Costco, and other major chains have been tripping over themselves in a race to carry these products.
This doesn’t mean there is no place for moral advocacy. Public outrage at animal agriculture is what ignited demand for these new products, and it will continue to do so. But it’s a matter of proportion. Today vegans have done so much moral advocacy that few people question why they should eat more plant-based foods. It is now more a matter of how, and for that, clean meat is the most promising answer.
It’s unbelievable how far attitudes have advanced. In a survey my colleagues and I conducted in 2017, we saw that 87 percent of U.S. adults believe that “farmed animals have roughly the same ability to feel pain and discomfort as humans.” A full 47 percent agree with the statement “I support a ban on slaughterhouses.”
These figures may sound unbelievable when contrasted with the less than 5 percent of U.S. adults who are vegetarian, but that’s exactly the issue: Social change happens first through changes in institutions and public opinion, not through millions of people changing their consumption patterns one by one. We see this in survey results about views of vegetarianism. Despite all of their concern for farmed animals, a whopping 97 percent of people agree with the statement “Whether to eat animals or be vegetarian is a personal choice, and nobody has the right to tell me which one they think I should do.”
The vegan movement must become the clean-meat movement. Moving away from the “Go vegan!” message is an uncomfortable process. Many activists have spent decades focused on persuading people, one by one, to change their diet. Fortunately, many vegans are now stressing institutional change. They are working to improve the animal-free products that are available to people, persuade companies to adopt meatless Mondays, help the government formulate regulations that support technological innovation, and encourage a society-wide trend toward the end of animal farming. They are making this switch because ultimately they want what’s best for the animals and for the planet.