Underappreciated consequentialist reasons to avoid consuming animal products

I love Magnus’ post here, which echos many thoughts in the penultimate and ultimate chapters of The Future without Animal Products.

Magnus Vinding

While there may be strong deontological or virtue-ethical reasons to avoid consuming animal products (“as far as is possible and practicable”), the consequentialist case for such avoidance is quite weak.

Or at least this appears to be a common view in some consequentialist-leaning circles. My aim in this post is to argue against this view. On a closer look, we find many strong consequentialist reasons to avoid the consumption of animal products.

The direct effects on the individuals we eat

99 percent of animals raised for foodin the US, and more than 90 percentglobally, live out their lives on factory farms. These are lives of permanent confinement to very small spaces, often involving severe abuse, as countless undercover investigations have revealed. And their slaughter frequently involves extreme suffering as well — for example, about a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive in the US every…

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Finished An Entire Book Draft

After a long journey, spanning 2-3 years, I’m happy to announce that I’ve finished a full draft of The Future without Animal Products. It’s been difficult, humbling, provoking, and gratifying. To celebrate, I’m sharing the final cover illustrated by the talented Julia Allum.

I will pursue a few rounds of revisions. Thankfully, the hard part is done — the content and organization are solid. My focus now will be on making it more engaging and accessible. I’m striving for a Fall/Winter 2020 publication date, but stay tuned.

Chapters 7 through 9 written!

It’s taken about a month longer than I would have liked, but the third quarter of the book is written! I would say I’m about 85% done with the book now. Chapter 7 is about nutrition. Spoiler: we don’t need that much protein, and the value of protein derives from its structure, not chemical makeup. Chapter 8 is about hedonism and mindfulness — both affect our ability to generate knowledge and move beyond animal products. Chapter 9 is about what The Future without Animal Products looks like, expounding on and jumping off an earlier post already written here.

These were fun chapters to write, and I hope others will find profundity in the conclusions. Now for the final stretch.

 

metabolicriver
Figure from Chapter 7 — our metabolism is like a flowing river. It’s fungible, capable of overflowing, and can change directions. Original figure made by WikiUser Shannon1. Modified and acknowledged under the Creative Commons license BY-SA 4.0.
“Mississippi River.” 2019. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mississippi_River&oldid=933292254

 

Progress Update and Preview Pic

Happy New Year!

Chapters 1 through 3 have been reviewed by my friend, Will Roderick, and editor Brandon at Affordable Editors. I sincerely appreciate their feedback — both of them challenged some of the ideas and help clarify/slim down the sections. The manuscript is better for having entered their hands.

A few days ago, I finished full drafts of Chapters 4 through 6, which are currently being reviewed. I’m currently writing Chapters 7 through 9 now.

Otherwise, I’m more concertedly seeking an agent for representation and a publisher. I will be querying both in the coming months. After much back and forth, I decided to attempt the traditional publishing route. I seek to broadcast these ideas as widely as possible, and that’s going to be easier traveling down the beaten path.

Finally, a small teaser:  In Chapter 1, I excoriate the naturalistic fallacy — the idea that the more “natural” something is, then the inherently better it is. It’s wrongheaded, imprecise, and detrimental, but I’ll leave the full argument for the book. Here is one illustration (above) used to compare “natural” ancestral bananas versus current ones, the result of continual selective breeding (i.e. genetic modification). We want the modern banana. GMOs and selective breeding are noble and will help us rid animal products sooner.

 

 

 

Looking for an editor

I’m soliciting an editor for a forthcoming non-fiction book The Future without Animal Products. If you know someone interested, please send this way.

Synopsis

Animals are terrible technology and will be replaced. They grow slowly, require a lot of resources, and are difficult to innovate. It is simply a matter of development before newer, better technologies displace animals entirely from our food and products. Most of the discussion regarding the shift away from animal products fixates on moral and environmental issues. In this book, I will pursue a largely unexplored angle to the debate – the technological benefits of curtailing animal usage. I discuss why using animals are susceptible to disruption in the same way that companies like Netflix eviscerated Blockbuster.

I’m not satisfied to merely convey information about the inferiority of animal products. I seek to rend the readers’ notions about animal technology, and in the resulting chasm, inculcate complete derision. Using animal technology should evoke cars powered by burning wood. First, I discuss how we humanity generate new technology and knowledge. Every technology has a ceiling, especially in the case of animal technology. The most optimistic technical outcomes for animal technology fall well short of the putative replacers. By propping such terrible technology, we stave off a future promising better, healthier gastronomical options; increased wealth; less suffering; a cleaner Earth; and an improved economy. While this future is inevitable, we should want to arrive sooner than later. We, humanity, should strive for The Future without Animal Products.

Status

I’ve rewritten over 50,000 words at this point, and I’m expecting to reach 75,000 to 100,000. If I’m a Pollyanna, the work hits the presses sometime over the next six months. But I’m an iterative writer, and I’m liable to making large scale changes that prolongs the writing. Furthermore, I’m juggling this project with a full-time job and other responsibilities. Nonetheless, it’s a suitable time to hire an editor to help progress and restructure the work if need be. If all goes to plan, we’ll have a sustained relationship over the next 6 months to 1 year for which you will be appropriately compensated.

What I’m looking for

In my view, the ideal editor is as follows:

  • You are excited about the project and would be interested to learn more.
  • You love to learn new topics and are intellectually intrepid, especially in unfamiliar, hard science territories sampling areas such as quantum physics to biological engineering.
  • You would be available and responsive for editing up to a year.
  • You don’t mind some controversy, and you value the best arguments/knowledge. Not sure how this book will fare in terms of reception, but I’m taking strong, unconventional stances (e.g. Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a noble technology and will help us rid animal products sooner. Naturalism is a dumb, empty concept. Moral relativism is wrong and holds us back from making progress).
  • You have experience either conveying or helping to relate difficult, abstract ideas to a wider audience. Most importantly, the work should be clear, engaging, and educational.
  • You represent the target demographic well and have some-but-not-expert scientific knowledge (e.g. high school education in biology, chemistry, and physics); therefore, you help calibrate the abstract science explanations. I have the curse of knowledge. I will heavily rely on my editor’s vantage for all the pertinent topics.
  • You are honest, direct, and can explain how/push to make the manuscript better. Right now, I’m favoring someone who is better at development and tonal edits versus just for grammar/flow.

If you’re interested and potential budget

If you are interested, please send me a bit of your background (a portfolio website would be stellar), why you’re interested in the project, and a proposed initial financial arrangement. If I think it’s a good fit, then we would try a probationary period, which I would certainly pay for. Most likely, I’d send you a chapter or two and see how the feedback is. Happy to pursue this with multiple potential editors first.

Currently, I’m likely to self-publish the work. Though I will submit at least one book proposal, which I may have you edit too.

Book’s Table of Contents and progress update

Over the past year or so, I’ve been working on the book The Future without Animal Products. Book writing has been proceeding. I’ve experienced lulls, where I inch forward over weeks. I’ve experienced flurries where I’m wholly entranced, only aware to the screen in front of me. I still have much more to do, but I think I will finish the book. To celebrate that realization, I am sharing the current Table of Contents for the forthcoming The Future without Animal Products book.

I hesitate to promise an exact completion date. I write iteratively:  Even after having a “first draft”, I’ll pass over multiple times likely to make large-scale and organization changes. Otherwise, I intend to have a parts ready for editing and review by the end of the summer. Let me know if you’re interested in reading and providing feedback on early draft chapters.

Regarding the potential publication of the book: Currently, I’m planning to self-publish and hire an editor. I see maximum flexibility — I do not have to artificially lengthen the book (as most non-fiction is way too long), and I would not be subject to deadlines. However, I’m still open to the classical route, especially given that publishers can help with the marketing. If the topic of the book interests you, feel free to reach out to me for a formal proposal and sample chapters.

 

An update

EDIT (March 17, 2019): Phaedra reached out to me to assure that reviews were not manufactured by her. I’ve struck out that point.

I acknowledge the length of time preceding this belated update. In late Spring, I had accepted a position at a startup (Spero Foods) that commenced August 1st. The startup was in the alternatives to animal product space and seemingly offered a direct opportunity to tackle the problems that I lament here – generating better animal-free options. I judiciously allocated my bandwidth toward finishing my work in Zurich and consulting for the startup, leaving nichts for this blog.

There were many issues working at Spero Foods. For important reasons, I cannot expound on my experience there. The key point is that the founder (Phaedra Anestassia Randolph) committed some egregiously unethical actions. Soon after discovering Phaedra’s infractions, I resigned. Many individuals have had issues working at Spero and with the founder, contradicting the likely solicited, if not counterfeit, reviews on Glassdoor.

Even though the Spero episode has costed me significantly in terms of time, opportunity, and my own savings, I still support the mission. I hope that Phaedra humbles her ego, accepts her deficits (esp. in people management, scientific capability, integrity, and company strategy), and finds the help needed to right ship. Unfortunately, some post-resignation actions suggest that she’s far more keen to inculpate everyone else and admit no wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I took the risk and that I moved on when confronted with the reality. Since then, I applied for other positions, and I am happy to have found and accepted one at Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL) in South San Francisco. Even though ECL is not directly in the alt food space, they satisfy another strong personal passion – creating technologies that enable more rapid knowledge generation. So far, I’m quite happy at ECL, but simultaneously I still seek to advance the causes behind this blog in my free time.

Regarding this blog –  I’ve decided that the content will ultimately work better as a book. My thesis is that knowledge generation is ultimately the key to supplanting animal technologies. The current zeitgeist rewards relatively untrammelled knowledge generation. Therefore, animal products will be replaced. I see the book in three broad parts: (1) how knowledge/technology generation works, (2) the dimensions of animal technology that make it ripe for disruption, and (3) the levers and subtleties to the paradigm I pose (e.g. how we can replace animal products faster).

Over the last few months, I’ve solicited feedback about publishing a book. Consistently, I hear that having a large platform (i.e. 25K+ Twitter followers, a prestigious position at a top University) is paramount for a book proposal attractive to publishers. I’m not Michelle Obama nor Steven Pinker, and I honestly eschew social media as much as possible. Nonetheless, I’m still motivated to attempt such a book irrespective of any putative book deal. I’m not sure how (e.g. self-publishing), but, for now, let’s just write the fucking thing.

Acknowledgements

  • Big thanks to Gidon Eshel and Beth Clevenger for helping me get started.
  • Thanks to Jacy Reese for some sobering and direct feedback about the process. He recently released a book, The End of Animal Farming. I devoured and finished it within a few days. It is heartening to know how far animal rights advocacy and the alt food industry have come. He greatly clarifies the challenges with the advocacy, what we’ve learned, and what works.
  • Thanks to Magnus Vinding for other advice. He self-publishes and releases some profound work, entirely for free. It’s a strategy that I’m chewing on.

I’m joining Spero Foods

I’m beyond ecstatic to announce that I’m joining Phaedra and Spero Foods full time within the next month! Stay tuned and/or subscribe to the Spero website for the opportunity to try a plantbased cheese and egg. Early reviews are in and already suggest that they’re tasty and nutritious!

spero

The long term goal with Spero is to develop tractable systems to explore the Expanse of Amazing Foods comprehensively and quickly. I hope that we can overwhelm consumers with superior, resplendent animal-free options and help render animal products inferior. The cheese and eggs are hopefully just the beginning.

The good news comes with some bad. This blog will be placed on the backburner to my work with Spero. My efforts are best spent in the trenches: actually generating the foods that supplant animals. Nonetheless, I strive to promulgate knowledge that potentially catalyzes progress. There are still many areas to discuss on the topic of The Future without Animal Products. I will write when I can, though irregularly and infrequently and not until other work settles, i.e. after a long time. Furthermore, I alert you now to the potential conflict of interest. I certainly cannot be as free before, especially in anyway that undermines Spero (e.g. proposing specific research ideas/areas on the blog). Moreover, any opinion that I express is my own and does not represent Spero nor any other person/entity I’m associated with. That said, I’m excited to see what we can bring to your grocery store and restaurants!

Best,
Karthik

The Expanse of Amazing Foods

What’s your favorite dish or food? Aside from a few mainstays (e.g. bread, cheese), the item is likely new. Maybe it’s milk chocolate. That’s about 150 years old. Perhaps, it’s a spicy tomato-based South Indian soup? Peppers and tomatoes were only introduced to India around the 15th century. How about Tiramisu? A baby. 50 years old.

Any culinary tradition that you invoke – Indian food, Mexican food, Italian food – is a newcomer in the course of human history. Humans originated roughly 200,000 years ago, but familiar dishes pervaded only in the last hundreds of years primarily due to trade and technological advancement. If we compressed human history to a day, many beloved dishes and foods only entered in the final minutes. Most of human history entailed simply surviving starvation [1]; sophisticated recipes indulged a rich few, and some would even disgust us today. As economies developed and more societal members ascended the human development ladder, culinary creativity and options blossomed.

We inhabit a gastronomical Enlightenment. If you live in a decent size, globally-connected city, you likely access Chinese food, Spanish food, Ethiopian food, etc. Ingredients have also proliferated. You can purchase tahini from Israel, cheese from Switzerland, or coffee from West Africa. It was not always like this, even recently. The television series Mad Men, a period piece set in the 1950s, highlighted a character bringing back oranges from Florida to his office in New York City. Ask your grandma when she first had an avocado. Assuming you’re not of Mexican/Californian/Peruvian descent, it was probably only in the second half of her life.

Given that most of our food is new, the corollary suggests that many, amazing foods are completely undiscovered. It’s as if we’re the crew leading the USS Enterprise to new, exotic planets. Humanity only knows a certain amount of space/planets and our ship is bidden to find other planets. Suppose every planet we discover is a new delicacy. Not all of them are memorable, but a few exceed the current set of food. Nonetheless, as we uncover more space/planets, our gastronomical repertoire can only exponentiate. I term this the Expanse of Amazing Foods.

milky-way-starry-sky-night-sky-star-956981
Many planets/foods to find! Photo by Felix Mittermeier from Pexels.

If not apparent, I metaphorized the Expanse from food chemistry. We can extract components from different food substrates and combine them to generate potentially superior foods. For example, milk proteins and fat aggregate to form cheese. Could we take proteins from something else (e.g. yeast)? And fats from elsewhere (e.g. coconuts) and create something cheese-like? Perhaps it tastes better than normal cheese. Maybe it even satisfies in way superior to hamburgers. Suppose it imparts more vitamins than a bowl of spinach.

You may be wondering how this topic relates to the Future without Animal Products. Why not explore animal products? Yes, that’s tenable, but this Expanse is massive – effectively, infinite. No matter how many ships we send out or how fast they travel, we will never reach all of it. I conjecture that traversing this Expanse would actually be faster if we don’t consider animal products. Expanse exploration is tantamount to the chemistries we can apply to substrates. There are significantly more chemistries we can use on non-animal products versus animal products. One reason stems from the inherent danger of animal-based goods. One cannot safely eat raw meat; therefore, using raw meat as a substrate is too dangerous. We can use raw vegetables, nuts, and even microbes (e.g. yeast) easily though. Secondly, animal products are poor planets to explore because of the fundamental process limitations (as evinced in the Animals by the Numbers posts). For example, suppose we pinpoint a specific cow protein for a novel food. We would need too much time/resources to synthesize and separate one cow protein.

For readers who have read my other posts, you perhaps infer that I consider the animal-free industry to be too parochial. Specifically, I perceive most efforts to generate simulacrums of existing animal-based goods. I understand the logic: customers would be more willing to try something familiar even if inferior. However, consider most esteemed vegan/vegetarian dishes. What’s the quality that elicits satisfaction? I would argue that it’s because they are delectable on their own, not because they evoke feelings of animal-based dishes. I enjoy falafel wraps because they’re tasty and filling. Not because they remind me of lamb shawarma (Döner Kebab auf Deutsch). We need more awesome, non-animal dishes that drown out the animal-based ones.

To drive this point home, consider replacements to animals in other technological arenas. For example, horses dominated transportation for the better part of human history. The replacement wasn’t a robotic horse. It was a car. Even though it’s a fundamentally different design, cars exceed the useful qualities of a horse (e.g. speed, distance one can travel) and dispense the disadvantageous ones (e.g. tiredness, longevity). Likewise, we must understand the distinguishing, pervading qualities of animal products (e.g. fillingness? umami taste?) and generate more foods that exceed these parameters. As we explore the Expanse, we will find more such foods even if of fundamentally different design.

Summary

Finding new, better foods analogizes to exploring new physical space. Exploring this space will be faster and easier if we only consider non-animal sources. We should welcome novel designs that augment our culinary possibilities.

Other notes

  • Thanks to P. Randolph for helpful discussions regarding this post.

References

[1] Harari, Y. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 2014

Animals by the Numbers #2 – Productivity

Note from February 9, 2020: I’ve redone this analysis for the forthcoming non-fiction book, The Future without Animal Products. The new analysis is stronger and more correct than what’s shared originally on this post. That said, this post is still highly useful.

The animal agriculture industry has pursued creative paths to increase the productivity of their process. The industry breeds chickens and turkeys with such large breasts that they can’t walk or have sex. Cows are fatter and eat more. If you seek even more examples, I suggest Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It documents many ignominious ways in which breeders have attempted to boost productivity (e.g. getting hens to lay more eggs, cramming animals in tight space). Despite the lengths taken, animals are still fundamentally limited in productivity compared to prospective competitors (e.g. plants, yeast). I discuss the limits of animal-based productivity in this Animals by the Numbers post.

Productivity is how much product generated per time. Even though much input for meat is cheap (e.g. grass, corn, water), the producers pay dearly with time. A chicken requires about half a year to become full size; a cow requires almost 4 years [1]. Productivity keeps the meat producers up at night and the breeders at work. So how does productivity relate to the biological substrate, in this case, the animal? Productivity equates to how fast an animal grows. Intuitively, this makes sense. Assuming all adult cows are the same size, if it takes Breed A five years to reach adulthood versus Breed B taking seven years, then Breed A is the more productive choice. Even if the Breed A eats way more grass to reach the same mass (sacrificing yield), I suspect most meat producers would prefer A.

As explained earlier, meat comes from the animal biomass. The purpose of growing animals is to generate biomass. Biomass productivity has another name in the biochemical engineering space, growth rate. And as you probably surmise, growth rates have been quantified for many domains of life, particularly microorganisms. Quantifying growth rate for animals is somewhat tricky because they follow the ontogenetic model, where they grow mostly in the adolescence and cease as adults. To get around this, we can consider the maximum growth rate (biomass productivity), or the fastest that a given organism will grow. I’ve derived such a metric for ontogenetically growing organisms. You can find that on the Github. So what do those numbers look like?

growthrates
FYI, The scale is log10 based. That means we’re looking at fold differences in the maximum biomass productivity (growth rate). For example, bacteria is ~100 times more productive than in vitro meat.

To give you a sense of how fast bacteria grow (~1 per h): If you could feed bacteria unlimited nutrients and sustain the optimal conditions, a single bacterium (665 femtograms) would generate biomass equivalent to Earth’s total mass in just 4 days. In contrast, if you could do the same with cows, it would take more than 100 years. (Again, I’m assuming one can always have the cows growing maximally. )

A subtle casualty of the terrible animal-based productivity is land usage. Animal agriculture has capitalized much of our terrestrial, ice-free surface. Specifically, a whopping 30% of such land is used for animal agriculture [2]. The explanation is simple. There is a lot of demand for animal products. To meet such demand, producers employed contemptible ways to increase productivity. That alone wasn’t enough. To counter the still terrible productivity, the producers expanded the enterprise. If you have a slow process, just make the process bigger!

Therefore, we should acknowledge the tremendous opportunity cost to producing animal-based goods. It’s not just the copious CO2 that the animal-industry generates (~18% of emissions) [2]. We also must note all the lost and putative forests that could be drawing back CO2. Without animal agriculture, we’d almost certainly have more trees/forests. Switching to a more productive biological substrate (e.g. yeast), would free the same fold of equivalent land. For instance, if yeast replaced cows for products, we’d free up +99.9% of the land from the tendrils of the cow agriculture behemoth.

Summary

Animal agriculture fixates on productivity, and the consequences have devastated moral and environmental realms. Growth rates (biomass productivity) of other organisms portend dramatically improved productivity, when we switch substrates for our products.

Other notes

  • This analysis particularly extols in vitro meat, or meat grown from animal stem cells in bioreactors. They will decimate old school animal agriculture in the productivity metric. I calculate that they would be at least 100 times more productive.
  • This analysis particularly castigates tree-based goods (e.g. chestnuts, almonds). Trees-based products are not productive. Before the calculations, I figured nuts would fall short. I’m even more disappointed now.
  • You may be wondering if one can modify/engineer a cow to be more productive. No, physics imposes certain limits. Can read more here.

Key words

  • Productivity – The rate of product generated. How fast we can make something.
  • Growth rate – A metric equivalent to the productivity of biological entities.

References

[1] G. B. West, J. H. Brown, and B. J. Enquist, ‘A General Model for Ontogenetic Growth’, Nature, 413.6856 (2001), 628–31

[2] P. K. Thornton and M. Herrero, “Potential for reduced methane and carbon dioxide emissions from livestock and pasture management in the tropics,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., vol. 107, no. 46, pp. 19667–19672, Nov. 2010.