124 Comments
Aug 30, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I really hope this technology moves quickly. I kind of think less of my well paid liberal meat eating friends at this point. Gives me the same vibes as the people with their liberal signs next to a nimby sign. Or the idea that voting republican means you're okay with racism (it does).

It is incredibly easy to be at least vegetarian these days. It's not the 70s hippie frontier days of vegetarianism. If you eat meat you're okay with treatment that would signify psycopathy if some kid in the neighborhood was doing it to animals in the woods.

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I agree and disagree. Your moral calculus is completely correct – those of us (including myself in this) who continue to eat meat really are knowingly participating in what is most likely a holocaust-level moral crime. But I think the social dynamics are very different from nimbyism or voting republican, and meat eating is much more difficult to give up as a result.

Most of the meaningful time I spent with my dad as a kid involved eating burgers and barbeque, and going fishing. They continue to be ways that I connect with him as he gets older. They’re also the favorites of many lifelong friends; things for us to connect over, to make together, excuses to go out and socialize. There’s a spiritual quality to these foods for me now; they take me back to my family, back to cookouts after church and fast food while skipping class in high school; they ground my sense of who I am and where I’m from. I say this without the slightest shred of hyperbole.

Add on to that the fact that meat just tastes really frickin good for those of us who grew up eating a lot of it. I tried being a vegetarian when I was younger and more determined to live out my morals. I made it over a year, but I never stopped craving meat. This was mostly due to the social factors I listed above (god it felt like a betrayal telling my dad I couldn’t go fishing with him) - but also because I just genuinely liked meat, and the alternatives sucked. The market has improved a bit since then – impossible burgers really aren’t too bad – but not enough to make it “easy.” I broke my 15 months of vegetarianism with a Five Guys burger, and in that moment I understood fully why the French call food a joie de vivre. Like friendship, romance, nature, and family, good food really does add something irreplaceable to life.

None of this is even remotely close to being a good excuse for eating meat. I am entirely aware, in the abstract, that I am prioritizing my happiness over the suffering of millions. But being the flawed and selfish human that I am, I don’t like my chances of going back to a full vegetarian diet (though I have become quite the “reducitarian”). I’d gladly pay quadruple the price of a normal burger for one with an identical taste but grown in a lab; I hope it becomes a possibility soon.

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I think it's a feeling it that has to go along with knowing it. All the sudden when I realized I was just walking passed body parts and it grosses me out.

A lot of what making a successful transition means is changing your plate entirely. I don't substitute meat, though I assume they are amazing training wheels and very convenient for us vegans to not be as huge of a pain in the ass to go dining with. I eat impossible meat once or twice a month, my kid likes spaghetti and meatballs and sometimes I need to grab a whopper for convenience.

The plate just has to change to do it successfully. I learned how to cook a lot of other cultures' foods (don't cancel me). Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, other Asian cultures, Mexican. The protein (meat), starch, vegetable dinner plate that I had growing up is just not vegetarian friendly. Beans are great!

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Nov 7, 2022·edited Nov 7, 2022

Your lack of spell check, and your grammar in general gives you away as a troll. I’m sorry you won’t pick up a bow and go hunt for your meat one month a year, and you’re instead forced to equivocate into this discussion liberalism, racism, and yet still admit you go grab a whopper. Poor you. Also, my first comment on anything online since like 2002, so congrats troll!

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I'm going to kill animals and eat their meat even if / when this artificial stuff becomes widespread

Cope.

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your first paragraph is world class narcissism, great work!

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I sometimes wonder, "What things do we accept as common practice that future generations will look back on with horror?" In the same way that virtually everyone on the planet once tolerated human slavery.

It seems clear to me that eating animals is likely to be near the top of the list.

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I am a carnivore but this is the issue that future generations will judge us most harshly on. Our methods of farming will be considered as barbaric as slavery and we will be morally condemned for how we treated animals. But my steak last night was delicious.

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To me, farming methods, mishandling animals and excessive consumption is horror, for sure. Not consumption in itself. Eating animals/animal products will continue until all animals go extinct. The key is moderation and minimalism.

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Funny that you mention this—it’s actually one of my areas of expertise, given our VC firm specializes (in part) on this.

We have a post on this in part (nothing groundbreaking, but just as a general overview):

https://creativeventures.vc/2021/07/19/alternative-sources-of-protein-part-2-the-solutions/

It’s both closer and further than you expect (to contrast with the people who call it crazy/utopian).

- It’s closer because it’s necessary—not because of animal welfare, but if you project out nitrogen fixation/supplies/etc. you rapidly get to marginally diminished/crazy projections if even just China grows in meat consumption as per capita GDP goes up (in a similar fashion to Taiwan, just to model on similar cultures/countries). Economics will force it, because our productivity must massively go up, or our “standard of meat consumption” must come down on a per capita basis (and obviously price will help mediate this).

- It’s far at the moment because some of the fundamental technological challenges, including structure (meaning, a steak is actually quite complicated in terms of a mix of vasculature, fat, etc. in a very specific configuration). Ground meat is easier(ish) but given the ability to solve some of the fundamental challenges and challenges around scaling, growing human organs, etc. and other medical applications are going to be first. The same problems apply to both… but one is higher marginal value, at least until prices go up a lot

- But yes, the way bioprocess is going and solving problems in synthetic biology, it’s probably on the horizon in less than 10 years in terms of being possible, though the question of economics is harder. We still have a few breakthroughs left (so R&D problems) before the scaling issue can be solved, so likely we’ll hit medical use first in terms of protein growth.

Anyway, interesting topic!

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medical use for protein growth! fascinating thought. Can you elaborate or point me in the right direction to better understand that?

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On a fundamental level, most macro structures in your body (and even micro) are made from protein, which is coded for in DNA, etc. Getting that out of the way and into the specifics here:

There’s quite a few companies trying to do this, though for the most part, the technical difficulties mean that the furthest we currently get is “organ-on-a-chip”—meaning a tiny, controlled model of the organ.

https://www.mdpi.com/2306-5354/4/1/10

If you look at most of the literature, no one is trying to use these to do organ replacement or anything like that—for obvious reasons, in such that these are tiny models of organs. As such, these things are usually used for drug testing purposes. It’s a bit of a solution looking for a problem, and drug testing was the closest problem we have, but there’s even controversy here how useful these micro-organ models are.

Anyway, if we are actually able to either 3D print or otherwise guide structural creation of complex protein structures (like we’d need to be able to do to make a convincing steak), we could regrow your chopped off arm. Or grow you a new kidney.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really companies that have gotten too far with this yet (as said, most of it is organ-on-a-chip or vascular-structure-on-a-chip or not much larger than that). If there were, you’d definitely hear about it.

Anyway, this dilemma and tech problem is why true artificial protein (for food) hasn’t taken off, but also why it’s much more valuable for medicine, which faces the same tech challenges, but has a far higher value use case for the technology.

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Aug 30, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Great piece, Noah.

I would love to see us progressives be better at sacrifice when facing collective action problems, but perhaps technology will save us. Unsure.

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Saying the right words is far more important to the progressive identity right now than performing any meaningful action or experiencing any material discomfort at all.

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Everyone saying the right words is how you lay the groundwork for people to actually start doing those things. It's much easier to become vegetarian if everyone says you should.

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There is a saying that some people have misunderstood: "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue".

Yes, I'm a hypocrite when I dislike cruelty to animals and still eat meat, but also, by acknowledging that I'm doing wrong - even though I'm not stopping - I am making it easier for others to do the right thing and harder for others to do the wrong thing.

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Aug 30, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

"It's okay to eat fish...cuz they/don't have any feelings"

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I'm sure they do, but yet I feel less monstrous about supporting their enslavement. Processing power of the brain seems to be associated with higher order functioning like the ability to feel existential dread. Or is that just as bad as "I am a monster and I will continue to eat meat?" Maybe.

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Aug 30, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

*pushes glasses up the nose and tilts head forward*

- I am a Moster.

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I've never understood the "don't think about it" approach to being an omnivore. I thought about it, drew the logical conclusion that I really, truly do not place any moral value on non-human animals, and that was that.

I look forward to the rise of lab meat anyway, though, if only because it might make planning meals with vegetarian friends slightly less annoying. I hope they don't stop as soon as they can make cost-competitive muscle cells, though. I also want my skin and cartilage and tendon and marrow. I hate it when people talk like making a good burger would be enough to solve the problem of meat. I never even eat burgers.

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If you really truly placed zero moral value on animals then you'd have no problem kicking dogs for no real reason, in the same way that people sometimes pull leaves off of trees while walking. Zero moral value means you'd accept ANY level of pain and cruelty in the raising and killing of animals, in the same way that people accept any method of cutting down a tree. Zero moral value means you think it is totally okay for people to kills pets through neglect, the same way we think nothing of when a friend says their houseplant died because they forgot to water it.

If you really apply zero moral value to animals -- maybe you actually do! -- I'm pretty confident that 99% of first world citizens would consider you a literal psychopath.

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Provided the animal is their property, and their maltreatment of the dog not cause the endangerment of others and their property, I have no issue with it whatsoever. To kick your dog, and not have it securely caged, is to endanger others. To pull leaves off of trees is to damage property held in common.

To be frank, this is because I view nothing besides ones own self as having any intrinsic moral value. Note, of course, that this is not a call for selfishness - I simply view all altruistic heuristics as the fruits of self interest. We ought to, however, reassess whether or not our heuristics still maximize our well being, and so as I do not see how improving the lot of animals improves mine, I will take no action to.

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what the fuck did i just read

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Doesn’t sound like a coherent view. Why in your framework are you concerned about the endangerement of others and their property but not the suffering of animals?

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Because I have property, and am a human, but am not an animal (in that sense). We should forgo taking others property, so that our property is respected too.

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Animals have property according to themselves. You can demonstrate this by getting a rabbit; it will instantly decide it owns your house.

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You're also a mammal.

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It would make him a sadist. He does not give intrinsic moral value to cows or dogs - but he also does not inflict pain just 'for the lolz'. He does not kick dogs, just like a farmer does not beat his cows.

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No, it wouldn't make him a sadist. Sometimes I slam a door. Does that make me a sadist? No, it means I've vented emotions on something that I place no moral value on damaging. Sometimes I throw my shoes across the room because I'm too lazy to walk to the shoe cabinet. It doesn't make me a sadist. It just means I place no moral value on treating my shoes well.

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Shoes and doors are inanimate objects. Dogs and cows can feel pain - we know that even if we don't ascribe moral value to them.

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"I also want my skin and cartilage and tendon and marrow."

I definitely read this at first like you wanted lab-grown meat based on yourself.

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I mean, if that became a thing, I would totally try it.

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I have the best commenters! :D

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Great piece Noah, but I'm not buying your defense by accepting your monstrosity. I'm a monster too, in many ways I never want to disclose, and I truly loved meat long ago. Meat of all kinds. Then I stopped eating it and never looked back. I'm lucky to have a wife who cooks wonderful vegetarian meals (sometimes fish) and that makes it easy for me, but I simply don't need meat and it's not really a sacrifice.

I'm really dismayed if those stats are true about the decrease in vegetarianism and veganism. Mostly because it's only gotten easier due to a lot of really excellent substitutes that didn't used to exist. It also horrifies my to hear that we're still many years away, but you and presumably many others can let the abominations continue unabated until then. You're halfway to not being a monster in this realm. You know how bad it is and you're willing to look it in the eye. Take action, please!

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I feel like vegetarians graduate from substitutes. Being a vegetarian forced me to become a wonderful cook. The creativity found in the vegan cooking world is really fun and amazing.

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Great piece and I agree here!

This remind me of the seemingly-resigned way much of the left now treats climate change (i.e., buy an electric car without reducing car trips, etc).

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Agreed and guilty as charged (no pun intended). I try to do more than just use an electric car, but I do love a nice road trip. It seems more impactful to push for leaders to take meaningful action to stop fossil-fuel lobbying and subsidies, and sometimes I do that, but not nearly enough. Many monstrosities - some I can stop and others I can't. I should go easy on Noah. He's at least spreading the facts to his very large readership and it might move the needle - definitely more than anything I'm doing.

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Or instead of waiting on some techno-utopian dream that will almost certainly become a nightmare we could (this is crazy, but hear me out) raise animals humanely, give them a good life, a good death, and eat them in the knowledge that we didn't create any suffering.

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why are you so confident it will become a nightmare?

also your proposal has the disadvantage of making meat inaccessible to poor people. which isn't necessarily a bad thing if it has other advantages, but lab grown seems superior on every dimension here

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Lab grown meat is a fragile system. It depends on massive energy inputs, technical expertise, and high hopes that the "meat" doesn't cause unintended consequences after years of consumption, without a deep understanding of the systems involved.

Field grown meat is an antifragile system. Done right, it is completely solar powered, has been deeply understood by peasants for thousands of years, and is known to be healthy. If done properly, it can be produced on land that is otherwise marginal.

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The knowledge behind growing grass-fed beef can't be that useful in modernity - They didn't have clean energy or a post-Malthusian society to feed. Besides, Americans don't even like grass-feed beef. They think it's too lean and tastes weird. They like steaks made from cows fed off Midwestern corn and soybeans, so we're back to https://impossiblefoods.com/ecological-footprint-calculator.

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Interesting form of morality that says that meat is only to be eaten by the richest strata of society.

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Interesting form of morality that says that every scarce and environmentally damaging resource should be available to everyone.

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If the extremely rich part of society, the only ones who can afford humanely raised meat, want to buy it all and then distribute it to the less well-off in society, then I'd be fine with that from a point of view of morality. Otherwise, not so much.

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I think we all know that this will follow the typical pattern. The rich will continue to consume healthy but expensive foodstuffs, the poor will dine on cheap imitations that lead to poor health and disastrous long-term consequences.

The best outcome for everyone involved is that as many people as possible are eating high quality meat that's good for them and the environment, and those that can't afford it often just do without. I'll be in the latter camp, eating high-quality meat on rare occasions.

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Just adding that there are ~100,000,000 cattle in the United States right now. 75,000,000 hogs/pigs. Crazy numbers of very large animals.

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As someone who lives in New York, can you give some good BBQ recommendations in Brooklyn? I'm always eager to try new places.

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It's worth noting that the cells have to be a grown in a special medium called fetal bovine serum (FBS) which is made by drawing blood directly out of a cows fetus during the overall slaughtering process. So that's another hurdle.

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Speaking as a research biologist, this is not insurmountable. There is nothing inherently special about FBS. Animal cells require a number of different secreted factors for growth (this makes perfect sense given they are supposed to be in a body, not a dish). FBS contains all these factors (since it circulates around the body). The only reason why FBS is typically used is because there is a lot of it (from farming), and because fetal cows are far far less likely to be infected by pathogens (mycoplasma mainly). It is entirely possible to adapt cells to serum free media, or to make artificial serum. It just happens to be a huge pain and so is often not worthwhile in a research environment/fine grade chemical environment (e.g. antibody production). At scale, this is probably one of the first things they'll deal with (FBS is also crazy expensive). Even if they don't go the artificial serum route, they could also just do some genetic engineering to remove dependency on growth factors (probably some factors are really easy and some are harder, also might even be required if you want to do stuff like making more realistic tissues and not just ground meat).

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The point that morality isn't primarily guided by what's right, but rather what works is such an underrated point. We need to examine our culture from a Chesterton's fence point of view; don't just ask what's wrong with our culture and how to get rid of the pathological parts, instead ask what's so right about it such that it persists. As Noah said, not until you realize just why factory farming is so essential to us can we figure out how to get around it.

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It will be interesting to see the evolution in popular thinking on animal welfare once most people aren't eating animals anymore. Pretty much all of my friends who I've talked to about these things say they dislike factory farming, but that smaller scale ways of killing animals - hunting, botique farms, etc. - are fine, and will always be with us.

I'm not so sure. Once people don't have to rationalize animal deaths to support their own lifestyle choices, I think people will become much more sensitive to any unecessary suffering or deaths. I also think this could raise some interesting questions with whether we should do anything about animal suffering in the natural world.

One thing's for sure - the culture wars over this are gonna really suck.

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Been on this boat for a while now. Glad to see it given voice.

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My expectation is that plant-based meat is going to become aesthetically indistinguishable from lab-grown meat, for all but the absolute most refined palate, within a couple decades. And given that plant-based meat will inevitably always have a substantial advantage in terms of its input/output efficiencies, this means that lab-grown meat will likely be a weird luxury item, the way a $2000 bottle of wine is. So in fifty years, some people will take pride in being able to tell the difference, and spend 10x more to eat "real" (cultured) meat, but most people will just enjoy their (plant-based) burger.

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Plus we skip on the plaques-building aspects of meat, and benefit from higher fiber and vitamins/minerals.

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Eh, I'm not optimistic about the health aspects -- in the course of replicating the flavor, it seems like we're also replicating a lot about things like the saturated fat balance. (You have to, in order to get the fat to start out solid, and then melt at the right temperature.) On the bright side, it looks like "plain" saturated fats aren't really the biggest problem for vascular health, hydrogenated transfats (like margarine) are the worst.

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You're right we're far from optimal, but it's a sizeable improvement over "regular" meat. I'm sticking to the "grains and beans" standards, but I'm glad we can advertise these more appealing substitutes to help the willings transition!

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