Intensive animal farming, also known as factory farming, is controversial for two reasons. First of all, it has a huge negative impact upon our environment – cattle is, for instance, one of the major sources of methane (a greenhouse gas stronger than carbon dioxide) emission. Second but not least, is the suffering imposed on animals kept as livestock. Though animal slaughter is an unpleasant aspect of livestock farming, the way we keep animals is probably far more cruel than merely killing a sentient being.
In this essay I want to explore a not-too-far future in which technology has reconciled our demand for animal products and animal welfare. Of course, I know that certain animal welfare activists will argue that we should become all vegans in order to put an end to animal suffering. However, I do not believe such strategy will be successful. Too many people like meat and other animal products, while current plant-based alternatives cannot (yet) satisfy this demand.
What are the main animal products we humans consumer? Meat, dairy, eggs and leather. I will discuss each product one by one. Thereafter I will argue that we can return to small scale farms that both respect animal welfare and play an important social function.
The agricultural section of a Bernal Sphere (source: NASA)
We have discussed in vitro meat several times at this site, mainly as an animal-friendly and suitable supply of meat for space settlers. The idea of in vitro meat is simple: take some muscle cells from an animal and put that in lab culture.
Andras Forgacs has realized that you do the same thing with skin tissue, and hence culture leather in the lab without killing animals. In the video below, Forgacs explains that cultured leather has not only the same qualities as “natural” leather, but actually one would create leather of superior quality. This because one has more control on conditions in which the leather is grown.
Leather has a certain appeal, and though I don’t buy leather for ethical reasons, I like this material. So do many vegetarians and vegans, so they do much efforts to obtain accurate imitation leather (if I need to buy new shoes, I have to take a one-hour train trip to Amsterdam to buy shoes at a special vegan shoe shop).
Cultured leather would be great for those who like both animals and leather products. Further it would prevent the slightly dystopian future I described in this story I wrote two years ago about a world were cattle farming has been out phased to make room for growing energy crops.