The Vegan Case for Clean Meat and an Ethical Future

There are many incredibly powerful arguments against factory farms, and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life making the vegan case to as many people as possible.

For years, I thought I only had to explain bacterial contamination and water pollution and global hunger and antibiotic resistance, and people would join me in boycotting industrial animal agriculture. I truly believed that people would change if they just understood that chickens have been genetically manipulated to grow six times faster than they do naturally, often leading to their bones breaking or their hearts simply giving out.

If people simply understood that factory farms are so brutal that millions upon millions of animals suffer to death before even making it to slaughter, surely they would go vegan.

I was wrong.

This isn’t to say that no one has changed. But surveys show that the vast majority of people who go vegetarian go back to eating animals. As hard as it is for me to accept, the largest and most rigorous survey, Faunalytics’ 2014 survey, found that only 1.94% of people in the United States are truly vegetarian.

Much more importantly, the number of animals suffering on factory farms continues to skyrocket. In the United States, per capita consumption of both meat and animals are at all-time highs. Even in Israel – often touted as “vegan heaven” – they eat more factory-farmed animals (chickens) per person than anywhere else in the world. In China, India, and the rest of the developing world, meat consumption continues to grow rapidly.

Despite all my sincere efforts and all the passionate work of activists around the world, more animals are suffering for food than ever before. An honest evaluations of the evidence indicates that almost everyone everywhere will eat as much meat as they can afford.

These facts led me and several others to step back and re-evaluate. We realized that meat itself isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is what comes with our current means of producing meat – pollution, hunger, climate change, contamination, cruelty.

What if we could give people the meat they want without the bad consequences? What if instead of focusing exclusively on trying to change the demand side of the equation, we simply changed the supply?

What if we made the better choice the default choice?

There are companies working on this now. For example, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods aren’t trying to make products for people who are already vegan – they want to replace animal meat. These companies have shown that good plant-based meat can compete. Beyond Meat reports 70% of purchases are from non-vegetarians; the Beyond Burger was TGI Friday’s fastest test-to-table menu item ever.

I am rooting for plant-based meats to take over. When Bill Gates tasted Beyond Meat’s Chicken Strips, he called it “the future of food.” The success of companies like Beyond Meat seems to have spurred established companies to continue innovating. For example, Tofurky’s Slow Roasted Chick’n regularly shocks meat eaters, and their ham roast is the first of its kind. These and other innovations have captured the attention of major companies, and they, in turn, are investing in and acquiring these plant-based pioneers.However, the stakes are too high to put all our plant-based eggs in one basket.

For people who just absolutely have to eat meat from animals, the other product of food science and innovation that I’m extremely excited about is clean meat. Clean meat is developed by growing real meat directly from animal cells, so there are none of the inefficiencies of raising, feeding, and slaughtering animals.

It’s called clean meat mostly as a nod to clean energy. Clean energy is energy that is better for the environment, and clean meat is meat that is better for the environment. Clean meat requires a fraction of the land and water, and it causes much less climate change. Because it requires up to 99 percent less land, all of that freed-up land could instead be used to produce renewable solar and/or wind energy. In this way, clean meat could actually allow for the production of more energy than it requires, and 100% of that energy can come from renewable sources. This makes the climate impact of clean meat even more positive!

Once produced at scale, clean meat could slot right into the current system. The promise of clean meat is now clear in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. This isn’t just me speculating. Various visionaries have invested in clean meat pioneer Memphis Meats, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as venture capital kingmaker DFJ (an early investor in a bunch of wildly successful tech companies including Skype and Twitter).

The meat industry also sees the potential of clean meat. Both Tyson Foods, the largest meat company in America, and major meat conglomerate Cargill, the largest private company in the United States, have invested in Memphis Meats. PHW Group, Germany’s largest producer of chicken, invested in Israeli clean meat startup SuperMeat.

When I talk about the potential for clean meat, I generally hear a lot of excitement. But some people have concerns. The first is that clean meat is “unnatural.” But very little of our modern life is “natural.” Antibiotics and contraception are “unnatural.” Even growing our modern crops – very different than their wild ancestors – in fertilized cultivated fields is “unnatural.”

Very few things are less “natural” than factory farms. These “farms” are crammed with thousands of animals who have been genetically manipulated to grow far faster and larger than they would otherwise. They are fed genetically-manipulated crops they wouldn’t naturally eat. These animals are often pumped full of various additives and drugs to further increase their growth. 

Basically, no one eats meat because they like factory farms. No one wants animals to suffer. No one wants crops to be wasted or antibiotic-resistant superbugs to kill millions in a global pandemic. But most people simply refuse to consider the downsides of factory farms because meat is just too central to our lives. Once we have clean meat from clean facilities that compete head-to-head with meat from filthy factory farms, people will be able to make the better choice without any inconvenience or sacrifice.

You might dismiss clean meat because you are happy with your current personal diet. That’s fine! Our goal isn’t to get you to eat meat. Rather, clean meat allows the majority of people to continue to eat meat, but to do so without all the downsides. If you don’t eat meat because you don’t like meat, by all means, continue with your current diet. But please recognize that consumption of factory-farmed animals is at an all-time high and set to soar far higher for decades to come.

Just about every argument for veganism is also an argument for producing clean meat to replace factory-farmed meat.

My goal is to have a much bigger and lasting impact in the world than I have with my personal food choices. This is why I co-founded The Good Food Institute, where I am the Executive Director. GFI is leveraging markets and food technology to end industrial animal agriculture. You can help, too. GFI is hiring, as are most clean meat companies. By giving people what they want without slaughter, we can end factory farms forever.

Bruce Friedrich is the Executive Director of The Good Food Institute, a U.S.-based 501 nonprofit that promotes plant-based meat, dairy, and egg substitutes, as well as clean meat alternatives to the products of conventional animal agriculture. 

Bruce Friedrich :Executive Director, The Good Food Institute