Vegans Need to Become Science Activists if Animal Friendly Meats are to be Successful

A relatively new company, Memphis Meats, recently released a video featuring a meatball that they claim did not require an animal to be slaughtered. While there are many questions regarding the actual technology, I believe the science and creation is less of a challenge compared to other, much larger forces. In order for science-based animal products to be successful they will need to overcome public perception and large, vested interests.

For anyone following the discussions around plant biotechnology, they likely have picked up on how polarizing of a topic it is. Animal products created through biotechnology or cellular agriculture will likely encounter similar opposition.

The opposition to GM foods is supported by grassroots activists, organic and natural food companies, as well as third party verifying organizations. These entities, especially organic producers, retailers and organizations who profit by farming animals for sale as organic products, will likely leverage common anti-biotech memes to use against innovative food technologies.

Stakeholders in conventional animal agriculture will likely be more of a challenge in some ways just out of pure size and power, but they might be in a more delicate situation than organic producers.

Everyone in the United States likely knows the phrases "Got Milk?", or "Beef. It's What's for Dinner." We grew up with them, but what is interesting, and surprising, is that those phrases are technically government-sponsored speech, though paid for by producer checkoff programs and managed mostly independently (the USDA oversees the checkoff programs, but in many ways the programs act fairly autonomously.)

Most recently it was The American Egg Board that got flak for trying to get Hampton Creek's Just Mayo blocked from being sold at Whole Foods' stores (the AEB also engaged in other questionable tactics and rhetoric.)

It's unclear, to me at least, how constrained the checkoff programs are in terms of their marketing. For example, dairy checkoff program funds were used to pay for this Facebook video which compared almond milk to dairy milk. While the ad is not terribly egregious, it hints at some of the tactics the animal ag checkoff programs might engage in if not properly constrained by the FDA and USDA.

Animal product producers and the entities that represent and market for them will clearly have a lot of power in shaping the debate on biotech animal products and cellular agriculture. However, as I mentioned earlier, they are in a slightly interesting position in that they can't necessarily rely on strictly anti-science or anti-biotech memes without doing damage to the plant genetics that they rely on to feed what they sell. I think their response will be largely dependent on how the USDA and FDA respond to biotech foods and cellular agriculture, especially when it comes to marketing.

The USDA and FDA tend to take a pretty good evidence-based approach on issues relating to medical and plant biotechnology. However, in both of those applications of biotech, there was little risk to established stakeholders. Unfortunately, the case of science-based and more ethical animal products is a bit different, where small startups are threatening an incredibly entrenched industry while simultaneously needing to get consumer good will.

Already we are seeing negative comments from vegans saying that cultured meat is "disgusting" or "gross". These comments represent some of the emotional opposition to technology-based animal products, a type of opposition that. if not countered, will likely be very harmful to animals.

So if we are to truly help animals, we need to become activists: not just activists for animals, but activists for science.