Beyond Meat™ vs. New Harvest

*Editors note: The author's name has been removed from this post at their request.

Does Beyond Meat™ make New Harvest obsolete?

[For some clarifications and a response, see matheny's comment.]

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New Harvest is a unique charity within the animal cause. It was founded in 2004 to provide grant support for research on the development of meat substitutes, in particular - in vitro meat. In theory, every hour that we accelerate the end of factory farming could conservatively mean over 1 million years of suffering averted. For this reason, many believe that New Harvest represents a unique giving opportunity: if we give enough money to New Harvest, it will simply be a matter of time until in vitro meat is developed and replaces conventional animal agriculture, ending the suffering of animals on factory farms.

This belief is shared by a number of Effective Altruists as well as by some large groups in the animal movement; for example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently extended its $1 million contest for the first marketable in vitro meat. Many activists, exasperated with their unsuccessful experiences at changing the minds of people around them, turn to New Harvest in the belief that absent chemically-identical products at cheaper prices, the public could never be stopped from eating the products of factory-farmed animals.

As altruists concerned about most effectively reducing suffering, does New Harvest then merit our financial support, as an optimal charity to bring about an end to factory farms? I argue not.

Beyond Meat™ is a new company that released its products to market this year. Using research by scientists Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff at the University of Missouri, it has developed a product made of purely plant-based ingredients that mimics chicken to such a degree that renowned New York Times food journalist and author Mark Bittman claimed that it "fooled me badly in a blind tasting". Recently covered by Time Magazine, Slate, and NPR, Beyond Meat is spreading quickly, costs no more than organic chicken, is full of protein and iron, and contains far less fat and no cholesterol in comparison with the animal-product. As demand grows and production scales, there is good reason to expect its price to drop to that of regular chicken. At that time we'll have a product whose every discernible physical property is virtually identical to chicken. This makes me wonder: why spend millions of dollars and several more decades trying to grow chicken in a lab?

Well, one might argue that the public will never choose a plant-based alternative over 'the real thing'. However, this seems doubtful - presented with two virtually identical choices, one healthier, and the other made of animal flesh produced synthetically in a lab, how many people are likely to choose the latter?

In contrast to Beyond Meat™, in-vitro meats are likely still a long way from being commercially viable, both in terms of inexpensive scale production and taste/texture. Currently, the growth solution that is used is extremely expensive and, barring some revolutionary innovations, it is likely to stay that way for a while. It'll also take years of refinement before these meats are indistinguishable from the real thing. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, lab-grown meat presents a large consumer hurdle because of the "yuck" factor in the public's reaction to synthetic lab-grown life.

Regardless of whether in-vitro meat or plant-based alternatives are what will ultimately replace factory-farmed chicken, the best way to promote these products will be to create demand for them. Effective Animal Activism's [now Animal Charity Evaluators] top charities undertake precisely this activity. For the activists referred to earlier who point to slow progress in this domain: in the course of the last four years of the previous decade, US college populations experienced a 100% rise in veganism and a 50% rise in vegetarianism (1% to 2% and 8% to 12%, respectively). Concurrently, meat consumption has declined 12.2% over the past 5 years. These organizations, in addition to reducing the numbers of animals suffering in factory farms, inculcate long-term ideological concern for animal suffering among the public. This added benefit will likely eventually translate into concern for other domains of animal suffering, including experimentation, clothing, entertainment, and wild animals. In contrast, the technological fix that New Harvest would facilitate produces comparatively less benefit in terms of the spreading of concern for animals.

In light of these considerations, it's doubtful that New Harvest represents the best long-term approach to reducing animal suffering. While New Harvest probably does a lot of good, we should not rely on it to be the sole cause of the end of factory farming. Activists who sit by idly awaiting the future arrival of the messiah in the form of in-vitro meat need to simply look around and realize that fake meat is already here - the time is now! The presence of Beyond Meat™ makes it a matter of increasing demand and reducing supply costs until animal agriculture becomes obsolete. Activities which accelerate and facilitate this are likely to be our best bets for reducing the greatest suffering in the most cost-effective manner.

Visit our top charities page to donate to the most cost-effective ways to reduce animal suffering, or the volunteering page for opportunities to give your time.

6 Comments

  1. ben_davidow December 4, 2012 2:36 am  Reply

    Beyond Meat is great, but it's just one company taking one approach. We need as much competition and variety as possible. My understanding is that New Harvest funds research that could be used by any number of corporations down the line. Competition is critical. Every cent by which the price of cultured meat declines (after passing a certain threshold) will likely result in a reduction of millions of hours of suffering. As Jason pointed out, plant-based meat alternatives don't fool most meat-eaters and I'd bet there are people who want the nutritional profile of meat which can't be found in a plant-based product. I think the yuck factor is largely due to misconceptions about how cultured meat is produced (e.g., that it's genetic engineering) that good marketing can undo.

    Even though meat consumption is declining some and there are more veg folks (at least at the college level), the whole world's not going vegan anytime soon. Even if .1% of the world's population ate meat just .1% of the time, we'd still be obliged as activists to make sure that this meat didn't come from animals.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't do outreach. We absolutely should since 1) the ascent of cultured meat is not guaranteed and 2) we need to help out the animals in the interim period before cultured meat's likely takeover. Basically, I see cultured meat as the most promising long-term solution.

    Sometime soon, I'm going to post an essay on the EAA page I've written on cultured meat for feedback. I argue that cultured meat is actually our best bet at getting people to broadly challenge animal exploitation, not just factory farming (mainly for the reason Pablo discussues above).

  2. Pablo Stafforini August 18, 2012 2:31 am  Reply

    You write,

    To fund further research rather than promoting existing alternatives it seems like we better have a very compelling reason to believe that this further research is going to be far, far more effective at displacing the products causing the most suffering. I simply see no reason to believe that, especially in light of the considerations above.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to present Mark's comments as an argument for New Harvest over Beyond Meat. Rather, I was quoting Mark in the context of your remarks about the supriority of veg outreach over the "technological fix" that New Harvest campaigns for. My point is that, if we want people to become more concerned about animal suffering, promoting cruelty-free substitutes--whether meat grown in vitro or veggie "meat" that tastes like the real thing--might be preferable to trying to persuade folks to eat food they don't like as much.

  3. Pablo Stafforini August 18, 2012 2:35 am  Reply

    Hi Daniel,

    Again, I wasn't presenting an argument for New Harvest over Beyond Meat (sorry for the confusion). I actually believe that, if Beyond Meat actually tastes like real meat, the moral case for supporting in vitro meat might be weakened somewhat (though note Gaverick's #2 above).

    I do believe that having an adequate meat substitute would be of immense help in spreading the meme that animal suffering matters morally--or, as you would put it, in fighting speciesism. But I agree with you that this by itself won't be enough, and that in our world there are stronger incentives for the emergence of such substitutes than for the adoption of an anti-speciesist ethic, once the substitutes are widely adopted.

  4. matheny August 18, 2012 2:32 am  Reply

    Thanks for starting a discussion of supply vs demand side interventions for animal welfare. A few counterpoints:

    1. New Harvest works on advancing plant-based meat substitutes, too. We recently sponsored symposia at AAAS and IFT on meat substitutes that featured Beyond Meat's Ethan Brown, and Sand Hill Foods' Pat Brown. Fu-hung Hsieh has been on New Harvest's board since 2005. I think the meat substitute market needs to be diverse to succeed. Just as we need a combination of energy alternatives to replace fossil fuels, I think we'll need a combination of plant, mycoprotein, and cultured animal proteins to replace meat. I don't think every omnivore will be willing to eat a single soy-based meat substitute.

    2. I don't think current plant-based meat substitutes have reached their optimum. They're getting much better but are still not able to fool most meat eaters, unless served as an ingredient so their texture is masked. I haven't seen their prices drop to be competitive with conventional meat, even as their market share has increased. Future improvements are likely, given the small amount of R&D that's been done to date. I think it is cost-effective to invest in further R&D at Beyond Meat, Sand Hill Farms, and other substitute R&D, such as Beyond Eggs / Hampton Creek Foods.

    3. Bon Appetit survey: a 4 percentage point increase in veg college students is 800k people. That would account for only 2% (0.3 percentage points) of the decrease in per capita meat consumption observed over the last five years. I would guess that most of the decrease is due to meat eaters eating less meat, not going veg. I think that encouraging vegetarianism can be very cost-effective, and may well be more cost-effective than supply-side interventions, but the argument would require other evidence.

    4. I agree with Pablo that a move toward animal-free diets reduces the psychological cost of taking animal welfare seriously.

  5. daniel-dorado August 18, 2012 2:28 am  Reply

    Hi Pablo. Interesting comments.

    I think this is probably true:

    "People have a deep psychological need to believe they are not bad people. If they eat meat and hear the arguments for why eating meat causes immense suffering, then to preserve their belief that they are not bad people they must either stop eating meat or reject the arguments. Some stop eating meat, but most reject the arguments. Because the arguments are plausible, the rejections tend to be rationalizations of their causing suffering. In vitro meat would remove the need to rationalize, and enable concern for suffering."

    But it doesn't necessary mean this:

    "Then, I claim that in vitro meat's removing the barrier to caring about animals will affect far more people (viz. the meat-eaters) than will The Humane League's initiatives (classes and booklet-distribution), and that affecting far more people will entail more concern."

    It's possible to accept that in vitro meat would remove the need to rationalize, and enable concern for suffering, but don't accept pro in-vitro meat / pro beyond meat as the most effective activism.

    There is already Beyond Meat, and there will be in vitro meat even without our support. Beyond Meat and in vitro meat are good business, and they will be perhaps a necessity in several decades with human overpopulation. I guess there will be a lot of bussiness and government agencies supporting in-vitro meat. If we do pro in-vitro meat activism, we can bring in-vitro meat forward a few years, but this is the only difference.

    On the other hand, anti-speciesism isn't a good business. Activism is necessary for it.

    Moreover if we promote New Harvest, how could we know that people will change their activism into a good direction when in vitro meat is created and sold? What if they leave pro in-vitro meat activism and support non cost-effective charities? We are creating trends when we choose a kind of activism, and it's very difficult redirect these trends into another different goal.

    I see a big and possible problem if we have a future with in-vitro meat but without anti-speciesists.

  6. Pablo Stafforini August 18, 2012 2:24 am  Reply

    These organizations, in addition to reducing the numbers of animals suffering in factory farms, inculcate long-term ideological concern for animal suffering among the public. This added benefit will likely eventually translate into concern for other domains of animal suffering, including experimentation, clothing, entertainment, and wild animals.

    More importantly, such concern might play a role in shaping the long-term future of Earth-originating sentience--where most of the potential suffering is located--by influencing the relevant human or posthuman decision-makers. Current human values, either in raw form or "coherently extrapolated", seem to place importance on the existence of "nature", even if it involves pain in large quantities. Spreading the meme the suffering matters morally, irrespective of species, would change those values, and prevent much suffering.

    In contrast, the technological fix that New Harvest would facilitate produces comparatively less benefit in terms of the spreading of concern for animals.

    This is unclear. I tend to see veganism, not as itself a way of spreading concern for suffering, but as a way of enabling such a concern to be spread. Insofar as people continue to use animal products, they will likely experience some cognitive dissonance when confronted with the idea that we should reduce the suffering of wild animals. For this reason, it seems to me that either Beyond Meat or New Harvest could be more effective in shaping values than veg outreach. In this vein, Mark Lee writes:

    People have a deep psychological need to believe they are not bad people. If they eat meat and hear the arguments for why eating meat causes immense suffering, then to preserve their belief that they are not bad people they must either stop eating meat or reject the arguments. Some stop eating meat, but most reject the arguments. Because the arguments are plausible, the rejections tend to be rationalizations of their causing suffering. In vitro meat would remove the need to rationalize, and enable concern for suffering.

    Then, I claim that in vitro meat's removing the barrier to caring about animals will affect far more people (viz. the meat-eaters) than will The Humane League's initiatives (classes and booklet-distribution), and that affecting far more people will entail more concern.

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