Veganuary: food for thought - ethical considerations when navigating the future food technology landscape

Our focus this Veganuary has been on the technology leading the way in this sector, and in particular the environmental benefits associated with it. This is unsurprising – as patent attorneys, we are interested in innovation, and our inner scientists are drawn towards technical solutions to big problems. However, the world is not made up solely of patent attorneys (thankfully!), and focussing only on tech and the environment would overlook important factors shaping the future of food. So, in a change to our usual programming, Lauren Woolley and Andrew Tindall are leaving IP behind and diving into the ethical and policy considerations around alternative proteins, and trying to answer a difficult question – is it vegan?

People are spending more time than ever thinking about what they eat.

Plant-based diets have surged in popularity in recent years, with the number of vegans in Great Britain estimated to have quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 and last year more than 600,000 people took part in Veganuary. This has been reflected in huge market growth and capital investment in vegan-friendly products. Plant-based labels are increasingly visible on the supermarket shelves and almost half of us are already using milk-alternatives.

It is also a boom time for innovation in future food technology. Whether it is precision fermentation, cellular agriculture, or bioprinting, more and more new products are in development that, whilst promising to be indistinguishable from foods derived from conventional agriculture, are produced through methods which are entirely alien. With this, ethical dilemmas around animal agriculture may be re-opened.

With this in mind, we wanted to explore the ethical implications of the technologies shaping the future of food, and discuss what impact this may have on their uptake.

“Ethical eating” and the rise of plant-based products

Amidst rising concerns for the state of the planet, more people than ever are reducing, or even eradicating, their consumption of meat and dairy products. Feeding a global population which the UN predicts will one day approach 11 billion will require more high-quality food, full stop. Yet the inefficiencies of animal agriculture mean that this cannot be achieved with the current human diet, much less one following the prevailing trends of increased appetite for animal proteins. Moreover, the environmental impact of animal agriculture is significant. Livestock farming is responsible for at least 18%, and possibly as high at 51%, of global greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is also the largest emitter of methane and ammonia. Many people are trying to combat these issues by moving towards a predominantly plant-based, or vegan, diet.

However, it is ethical, and not environmental, concerns which are the main reason driving people in the UK to adopt a vegan diet. Indeed, the modern vegan movement is founded on the desire to exclude exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals. Although people reach this conclusion through various religious, philosophical, or political routes, conversations around ethical eating inevitably find their way to the topic of veganism.

But what about other innovation in the Future Foods space? The rise of plant-based proteins, precision fermentation, and cultured meat begs the question: are these new technologies compatible with a vegan diet?

Is it vegan?

Firstly, it is clear that many innovative new proteins are vegan in the strictest sense. Microbial proteins – whereby yeasts and bacteria convert non-food substrates into edible proteins – and mycoproteins do not involve animals in their production process in any way, and are clearly vegan. Similarly, typical plant-based meat analogues and milks are devoid of animal products – although in principle they may include egg, dairy, or even meat ingredients, this is a question of formulation which can be avoided if necessary. The high levels of processing involved may, however, concern those whose veganism is rooted in environmental or health concerns.

Recent advances in precision fermentation have pushed the boundaries of what it means to be “animal-free”. Whether this is the Very Dairy product line offered by Perfect Day, Israeli firm Remilk, or Better Dairy in the UK, the technology is similar – microbial cells, typically bacteria or yeast, are engineered to produce milk proteins identical to those made by animals. The process is not unlike brewing beer, except instead of turning sugars into alcohol it produces molecularly indistinguishable milk, without involving a cow at all. Well, almost. The genetic template for the milk proteins is ultimately derived from cows – even where the transgenes are chemically synthesised de novo, a cow must have given a sample at some point for DNA sequencing. It seems likely however that many who avoid milk for ethical reasons will view this as acceptable, seeing as the animal’s contribution – a genetic sample – need only occur once, and may be performed non-invasively. This is good news, as precision fermentation promises to deliver a significantly reduced carbon footprint compared with conventional milk, and simultaneously improve on the water usage of plant milks. Perhaps more critically, chemically indistinguishable milk may be used in producing complex dairy products like yoghurt and cheese.

Cultured meat – where animal cells are grown ex vivo to form cuts of meat without the need for slaughter – poses an entirely different ethical scenario. Those who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet may consider any non-consensual involvement of animals in the food system as unethical, even if this is a one-time collection of cells. However, this is not the only position, and will depend on the philosophical motivation underlying this decision. For example, those who view a vegan diet as morally necessary as it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of interested beings once you factor in non-human animals (what philosophers call “utilitarian” ethics) might conclude that cultured meat furthers these goals. Indeed, this view has been expressed by Peter Singer, whose 1975 “Animal Liberation” is a foundational text for the vegan and animal rights movements. In a similar way, those motivated by religious concerns will look to their spiritual leaders to confirm – as some have already done – whether cultured meat satisfies their religious dietary laws.

The reduction of cultured meat to practice can also pose new ethical problems. In particular, the use of foetal bovine serum (FBS), a by-product of animal slaughter, as a growth-factor cocktail has long been contentious. However, as serum-free media has recently been unveiled by both Mosa Meat and Upside Foods, it appears that these issues may in principle be overcome.

Reframing the question

For many people, ethical questions about eating meat are only secondary concerns, if they figure at all. YouGov analysis suggests that still only 2-3% of the British population follow a vegan diet, with similarly low prevalence indicated for vegetarian and pescatarian diets. The majority of the general public do not engage in philosophical discussions about what to eat for dinner.

And yet, other considerations about what they eat are important to people. We have already mentioned the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Around 75% of adults in Great Britain say they are worried about the impact of climate change. If precision fermentation and cellular agriculture can deliver on their promises, enough protein to feed the entire world could be produced by an area smaller than London. In this event, future food technologies provide further options to those who want to decrease their environmental impact.

Cost, taste, health benefits, and food safety are also significant concerns. With the cost of living crisis, many do not have the luxury of choosing what foods they eat, and as the technologies mature future foods may eventually become the more accessible option, especially when fully accounting for the externalities not currently factored into the cost of meats. Food security is also a factor credited as the reason for including alt-protein in China’s 5-Year Agricultural Plan 2022. This is interesting as Asia – a region encompassing 60% of the world’s population – is often overlooked in the alt-protein conversation, and if this trend continues we might expect to see different qualities driving marketing and innovation in future food.

Conclusion – having your steak and eating it too?

The ethical questions around future foods, and cultured meat in particular, are complex, and their answers will depend on personal philosophy. However, this may not matter. The Veganuary campaign’s position is that, even if vegans personally do not want to eat cultivated meat and precision fermented dairy, they should support development in these fields as they promise to nevertheless reduce animal suffering and environmental degradation, especially that associated with factory farming.

Interestingly, an estimated 16% of Brits identify as “flexitarian”, primarily following a vegetarian or vegan diet, but occasionally supplemented with meat or fish. There is therefore a growing market of consumers who are not necessarily looking to eliminate animal-based products from their diet, but rather want to modify their consumer habits while maintaining a balance that works for them. This is likely due at least in part to a shift in desire towards deliberately making purchasing decisions with a positive social, economic, and environmental impact, often termed “conscious consumerism”.

There is a significant advantage in providing options aimed at people, like the authors, who aren’t ready to make the leap to completely cutting out animal products, but find themselves more and more in the clutches of “climate anxiety”, or who are comfortable with eating animals in principle but are concerned about their welfare during farming, and want to be a more conscious consumer. For innovators looking to break-out in the future foods space, it’s about choosing the correct marketing approach, and giving the right information to help consumers make the decision that is best for them, the animals and ultimately the planet.