Published on:

Will we find a way to replace meat eating before it becomes unpopular?

My Times column on meat eating:

A few years ago I had a conversation at Harvard with Steven Pinker, the bestselling evolutionary psychologist. We were both writing optimistic books at the time, his being The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline in violence over recent centuries. I asked him: if all sorts of violence and cruelty were considered acceptable a century or two ago and are now beyond the pale — slavery, child labour, bear-baiting, wife-beating and so forth — then what routine habits do we practise today that we will look back on with horror in two or three generations’ time?

That’s easy, he replied: meat-eating. Don’t get me wrong, he added, I like meat, but the trend of history is clear, that one day in the future people may well look back on the rearing of animals for slaughter as barbaric. The number of animals killed for food each year — about 60 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, a billion sheep and goats and 300 million cows — continues to rise.

Yet perhaps the early signs of Pinker’s coming change are already there: rising vegetarianism, growing disapproval of factory farming, boycotts of foie gras, opposition to hunting, more emphasis on the ethical treatment of farm animals. History has a way of driving these trends inexorably forwards, without anybody being in charge of them. I thought of this when I read last week that the government plans to introduce new rules after Brexit to restrict the export of live animals for slaughter. EU law currently prevents Britain from banning the practice. It would be a small change, but one of many that all trend in the direction of greater empathy.

This and other examples suggest that the animal welfare lobby is now scraping the barrel for causes to take up, without tackling the big but hard one of meat eating. An organisation called Crustacean Compassion is campaigning to add lobsters and crabs to the list of species protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The House of Lords recently debated the banning of animals in circuses, even though there are just 16 such creatures in the UK: six reindeer, three camels, three zebras, one fox, a macaw, a racoon and a zebu.

The treatment of animals has generally been on one-way travel to compassion, albeit slowly, for centuries. In the Middle Ages, according to the historian Barbara Tuchman, a popular spectator sport was to nail a cat to a tree and then take turns trying to batter it to death with your head, with your hands tied behind your back, while trying to avoid being scratched by the terrified animal. Cock fighting is now unacceptable almost everywhere. Britain made it illegal as long ago as 1835; Louisiana was the last American state to ban it in 2008. Bull fighting will probably not last long.

Yet the evolution of morals can go the other way too. Things that were once disgraceful can become acceptable, even admirable. Take homosexuality, thoroughly disapproved of by almost everybody (including some gay people) little more than half a century ago, but today — quite rightly in my view — treated by many governments, some religions, most people and (despite his born-again beliefs) the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, as something to be respected, even celebrated. Was that shift in attitudes inevitable?

Consider this startling coincidence of timing. The computer pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted and chemically treated for his illegal and (at the time) disgraceful homosexuality. About a year later Vladimir Nabokov published a book about a middle-aged man’s unusual lust for a very young girl. He shot to fame, wealth and literary celebrity. Today paedophilia is even more of a crime and a sin than it was then, homosexuality not at all.

My point is that one has evolved towards tolerance; the other towards intolerance. Don’t get me wrong: I approve of both trends. But I wonder if they were inevitable, or fortuitous. Even more strikingly, the regime that came to power in Germany in 1933 passed and enforced unprecedented laws against cruelty to animals while actively promoting vegetarianism, conservation and respect for nature. Yet it also rediscovered and normalised depths of cruelty to human beings that had long been dropped from social acceptability. Who could have predicted that bizarre combination of trends?

The idea that we are gradually and inevitably becoming nicer, more tolerant and more compassionate, spreading our morality to more kinds of people and more species of animal, is not necessarily right. These things can evolve in various directions.

Still, I think the general drift of culture is heading very slowly towards disapproval of killing animals for meat, however humanely it is done. Nonetheless, if you suggest, as I have done occasionally, that the answer is to breed animals without much in the way of brains, so they cannot suffer, then you arouse an even more horrified “yuk” reaction. Yet cows and sheep already have much smaller brains than their wild relatives. Why not go further and breed an animal that can do little more than eat and grow, and is literally too “stupid” even to feel pain?

Perhaps artificial meat will get there first. It probably is not beyond the wit of modern science to devise a reactor in which grass enters at one end and burgers pop out at the other end. That’s what a cow does anyway, so it must be possible. A Californian company called Perfect Day is marketing “milk” made from fermented yeast to which it adds plant-based sugars, fats, and minerals; the company claims it tastes like cow’s milk. Beware, cattle, robots are coming to take your jobs.

For the moment the barriers to the introduction of “in-vitro meat” (IVM) are technical and economic. A synthetic hamburger can be made from beef muscle stem cells, but at huge expense. Some in the industry are forecasting supermarket-priced meat within ten years. However, there is a further problem. Earlier this month a psychologist and a vet published a survey of people’s attitudes. They found that although vegans approved of the idea of lab-grown meat, they were unwilling to try it. “These results demonstrate an apparent paradox: those who are already meat restrictive appear less willing to engage with IVM; however, along with pescatarians, these groups generally reported more positive views of IVM compared to farmed meat.”

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times