Is top-down veganism unethical?

by Elmer of Malmesbury6 min read22nd Aug 202116 comments


Animal WelfareWorld Optimization

« Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. »
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Remember how the vegetables we eat everyday are very different from their ancestors from a few centuries ago? The same is true for animals. In half a century, farmers bred increasingly large races of chicken. Here is a comparison of the size of bones for modern and ancestral chickens:

Scale bar: 2 cm (source)

The leg on the left belongs to a modern broiler chicken. The one on the right belongs to a wild jungle chicken.

From the perspective of meat production, this is an improvement. From the perspective of animal suffering, things are more uncertain. Contemporary chicken are reaching pantagruelian proportions and now they have trouble walking and their legs often break under their own weight. One might even go as far as worrying this is a little bit unethical. Fortunately, there are solutions. I can think of three of them – the first two, you already know. The last one, however, I never see discussed anywhere.

1. Non-meat

The most fashionable solution now is to replace meat with plant-based construction materials that are claimed to look and taste similar to meat. My main problem is that plant-based meat is, at best, overlapping with real meat: the best-quality plant-meat is comparable to the lowest-quality meat. If you think the vegan burgers make accurate simulacra of meat, I’m afraid you are eating too much heavily processed shitty meat. We are still very far from the impossible® A5-rated wagyu, the impossible® pressed duck, the impossible® volaille de Bresse “en vessie” (which must be gently cooked in a plant-based impossible® pork bladder to be valid). As a typical Westerner, i have the opportunity to eat only about 90,000 meals in a lifetime, there is no way I’m wasting any of them on sub-delicious food. Still, this approach deserves some praise for actually existing and working, which cannot be said about the second approach –

2. Lab-grown meat

To be fair, the interest in lab-grown meat is increasing, slowly and steadily. Perhaps it will eventually catch up on sexbots. Here is a Frontiers review from last year, whose title alone drives the point home: “The Myth of Cultured Meat”. It is not that bad, really, but the current prototypes look like attempts at emulating the vegan attempts at emulating real meat. I don’t see any lab-grown marbled beef appearing in the foreseeable future.

3. Top-down vegan meat

Lab-grown meat was the bottom-up approach. Here, I will inquire into the feasibility of a top-down approach. Rather than starting from cell cultures and engineering them into a sirloin steak, I suggest starting from whole animals and using genetic engineering to remove all the things we find ethically questionable, one by one. Our end goal is, of course, to turn the live animals into warm, squishy, throbbing blocks of flesh devoid of anything that could possibly be construed as qualia. If we can give them a cubic shape for easy packaging and storage, that’s even better.

The path to success is long, but straightforward:

Perhaps the easiest, short-term solution is to make the animals insensitive to pain. We’ve known for a long time that some genetic variants in humans make pain disappear completely. The most famous one, a mutation in the gene SCN9A, was discovered on a Pakistani street performer who would literally eat burning coals and stab himself for the show (he did not live very long). Earlier this year, Moreno et al managed to make mice insensitive to pain using a CRISPR-based epigenome editing scheme (basically, they fused an inactivated Cas9 to a KRAB repressor, so it binds to the DNA just next to the SCN9A gene and inhibits transcription). As we can see from the street performer kid, disrupting the pain sensitivity pathway is totally viable, so I see no technical reason we couldn’t try that on farm animals too.

Of course, pain is not the only form of suffering. If we really want to persuade the PETA activists, we might want to make the animals permanently happy, whatever the circumstances. This is where it gets tricky. I found this genome-wide association study which identifies variants associated to subjective well-being in humans, but it’s not clear whether these variants have a direct effect on happiness, or if they just make you more likely to be rich and handsome. In the later case, it would not be particularly useful for our next-gen farm animals (it can’t hurt, though). It is pretty clear that some genetic variants have a direct effect on personality traits like depression and anxiety, so maybe there is room for action. To optimize happiness in farm animals, we would of course need a way to measure the animals’ subjective well-being, so that’s another obstacle in the way of convincing the vegans (vegans, I’ve been told, can be extremely picky). Also, there is another problem: if we find a way to make animals permanently happy, we might be tempted to apply it to ourselves instead, and then, nobody will care about factory farming anymore.

If removing pain and sadness is not enough, the next logical step is to get rid of consciousness entirely. Any chemical used to induce coma is probably not an option, since we don’t want people to fall into a coma themselves after eating lunch (I’m already close enough to a comatose state after lunch with regular food, let’s not make this worse). A more radical approach is just to remove as much of the nervous system as possible. In humans, there is a rare condition called anencephaly where a fœtus develops without most of the brain, and in particular without a neocortex. It is pretty clear that these kids have no consciousness, yet they can survive for a few hours or even a few days. There is also evidence that some mutations or recessive variants can trigger anencephaly, so the prospect of developing animal lineages without a cerebrum does not seem completely impossible. A major challenge, of course, would be to extend the life of the organism for more than a few hours. Moreover, it would require a lot of effort from the marketing department to make such a monstruosity appealing to consumers.

Sadly, this will not be enough for most vegans. Most of the vegans I personally know put the edibility frontier somewhere between the harp sponge Chondrocladia lyra and the egg-yolk jellyfish Phacellophora camtschatica, that is, anything with a nervous system is formally off-limit. This criterion does not make things easy for our master plan: we can remove as much of the nervous system as we can, I can’t think of any way to get rid of the cardiac automatism or the part of the nervous system in charge of respiratory function. Unless, of course, we dare enter into cyborg territory. Is the world ready for alimentary cyborgs? The future is full of surprises.


Let’s be honest, this post started as fun speculation and gratuitous vegan trolling, but I am actually very serious about the central point. GMOs are mainly discussed in terms of cost, environmental impact or health properties, yet very rarely as an avenue to reduce animal suffering. Many of the ideas discussed here are still beyond what is possible with our current understanding of genetics. Still, we can already identify some interesting research paths that are just waiting to be explored. So, what makes this approach so disturbing? As often, the moral questions turn out more difficult than the technical barriers. The major obstacle is not so much the actual genetic engineering, but the lack of good metrics for success – how do you even measure suffering to begin with? On the other hand, if the outcome of a problem cannot be measured or even defined in any meaningful way, maybe it does not matter that much, after all. I would be happy to hear what ethical vegans think about the general approach. What would it take for a top-down reduction of animal suffering to be acceptable to you?


16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:06 PM
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I think you're really understating the difficulty of engineering top-down vegan meat and overstating the difficulty of high-quality lab-grown meat. Lab-grown meat isn't quite there, especially from a mass production standpoint, but it's still way closer than genetically modifying animals to be ethical. Top-down veganism also doesn't solve one of the primary reasons for veganism, which is environmental concerns.

As a typical Westerner, i have the opportunity to eat only about 90,000 meals in a lifetime, there is no way I’m wasting any of them on sub-delicious food.

So you eat every meal at a Michelin-star restaurant, or cook equivalently delicious food? If so, I suppose you have a point here for yourself, but it applies to essentially no one. Most Westerners frequently eat at fast-food chains or cook from low quality meat from their grocery store. In my experience at least, the Impossible and Beyond burgers I have had are higher quality than any fast food burger and much of the ground beef I've had from a supermarket.

I think there's space between "eat only meals of Michelin-star quality" and "frequently eat at fast-food chains or cook from low-quality meat". In particular, I believe myself to live in that space; I cook my own meals, am competent but not at Michelin-star level, and never eat at fast-food joints.

I don't know how common this is, but I doubt I'm the only one.

Also, I claim the following is a coherent position and suspect that quite a few hold it: "It may well be true that in some sense the best vegan pseudomeat is of higher quality than most fast food burgers. However, it happens that I like fast food burgers, or at least some of them, and vegan pseudomeat burgers are less appealing to me whatever 'quality' they are credibly alleged to have in the abstract."

(Having said all of which, I am pretty sure all of us have sub-delicious meals fairly frequently, sometimes even by choice, and I've had delicious vegan food as well as delicious carnivore food, and I think "animal suffering is a big enough deal to outweigh my preference for delicious food" is a perfectly reasonable position that doesn't merit mockery.)

(Disclaimer: am a carnivore)

I'll agree that lab-grown meat seems more attainable than genetically engineering vegan animals, but I think you're overstating the quality of Beyond Meat.

The only Beyond Meat product I've had is a 'Beyond sausage', which was really impressively unlike meat.  I'd imagine that sausage would be the easiest thing to replicate, but the Beyond Meat one tasted like...uh...I can't find good words to describe what it tasted like, but it tasted neither like sausage nor good.  Even the 'sausage' in McMuffins or in Dunkin' Donuts' breakfast bagels is in my opinion substantially better, and the 'low quality meat from a grocery store' is substantially beyond that.

I haven't actually tried Impossible Burger, but if it's anything like the sausage I'd say it'll be substantially worse than fast food burgers.

I'm guessing you had the Beyond sausage from a Dunkin' Donuts? If so, I think we must just have different taste buds, because I definitely prefer the Beyond sausage breakfast sandwiches that Dunkin' had to the real sausage breakfast sandwiches.

That said, the "Beyond Meat" is definitely not as accurate as the "Impossible Meat" (they're two different companies with somewhat different approaches), and the sausages are not as good as the burgers, since burgers are the main product they work on. So I wouldn't be surprised if the Beyond sausage you had wasn't as good as the comparison I really had, which was the Impossible burgers.

Notably, they're both way closer to real meat than anything on the market ten years ago, so I'm eager to see where they'll be in another ten years. Perhaps they're at a plateau and there won't be much improvement, but I don't see any reason for that to be the case.

I think the next big step will be legal rather than technical. Imo the Impossible Burger is already good enough that if it sneaked its way into existing standard fast-food products like Big Macs, most people would neither notice nor care. So in the end it will be a similar issue to GMO foods; its wide-spread adoption depending on whether businesses have to explicitly label plant-based alternatives as alternatives. Defaults really matter.

in the end it will be a similar issue to GMO foods; its wide-spread adoption depending on whether businesses have to explicitly label plant-based alternatives as alternatives

Unless it becomes better. It might be far off, but if we can consistently create tastier meat, then people will seek it out (if it becomes known for quality, and the price is reasonable).


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Edited to fix that.

[+][comment deleted]5mo 2

Yes I think that top down as you call it is a much more effective method than lab-grown meat. In fact my original understanding of lab grown meat, back when it was much moreso theory than actuality, was that top down modification of animals would be the goto method.

I think it will be a lot easier if you set the bar higher. Maybe just try to create animal breeds that will satisfy pescatarians. Creating chickens that have the same level of consciousness as fish is probably a lot easier than getting chickens that have absolutely no nervous system. This might cause many vegans to jump ship too.

And I don't think we need gene editing technology to create the types of animals we're looking for. As you showed with the evolution of chickens, we can already do a lot with selective breeding. I'm no geneticist but I wonder what you could do by selecting for lower electrical activity in the brain or even smaller heads. Or maybe just electing for general undirected behavior. Create a breed of really stupid passive chickens maybe. Actually this seems more unethical than continuing with the system we have today.

I think the top-down approach is futile, because I bet that only a small fraction of vegetarians and vegans will be willing to eat (say) anencephalous chicken meat, which means there's unlikely to be a viable market for it.

Two reasons for this:

1. When you make it a habit not to eat some variety of food, especially if you're doing it for some sort of moral reasons, you will almost certainly come to associate that variety of food with moral disapproval, disgust, etc. The bits of your brain that learn these things are not subtle enough to make you feel those things in the presence of a plate of ordinary chicken meat but not in the face of an identical-looking plate of anencephalous chicken meat.

2. Just how much do you trust meat producers, anyway? Especially if you are vegetarian or vegan? If someone puts a plate of chicken meat in front of you and says "we guarantee that this was made from chickens genetically engineered not to feel suffering", are you going to be sure they're neither lying nor mistaken? That no one else down the line was lying or mistaken, even though in many cases there's strong motivation for them to think (or say they think) that no suffering was involved even if they don't really have good evidence for that, even though anencephalous chicken meat looks exactly the same as ordinary chicken meat? I don't think it would take much doubt to make a typical vegetarian or vegan unwilling to eat it.

If we're talking about whether top down meat is viable or not we don't need to appeal to all vegetarians and vegans. The question isn't, "if you gave a brainless chicken meat to a random vegetarian right now would they eat it?" The question is, "if you developed brainless chicken meat could you, with a few years of marketing, and some startup money, get a customer base to eat it and consistently buy it?"

I think the actual question is somewhere intermediate between those two. (Developers of brainless chickens might not be willing to wait a few years before seeing sales; supermarkets might not be willing to adopt brainless chicken meat widely before seeing evidence that plenty of people would buy it; etc.)

But I think the answer even to your second question is no, for the same reasons I already gave; I don't think those things will change easily.

On the other hand, if [happiness] cannot be measured or even defined in any meaningful way, maybe it does not matter that much, after all.

I think people would disagree with this (above).