Max Elder Interview | Thinking Animals United

September 2016

A TASTE OF FOOD REVOLUTION

Max Elder is an animal advocate and ethicist. As a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Max has been pioneering the ethical consideration of fish and is currently infatuated with the emerging field of cellular agriculture. We asked him how new technologies, new food, and new ethics will shape our future.

Our conversation began with Max himself setting the tone with the following remarks:

To begin talking about technology and its impact on our relationship with animals, we should start by recognizing that we are at a very unique time in history. Of course, most people say this at every point in history, but at this particular moment technology really is revolutionizing and upending every aspect of our lives. Given how interrelated our lives are with animals – as companions, as food, as vital parts of our ecosystems – technology is also reshaping the human-animal relationship. Technological revolutions have ripple effects and implications far beyond what we ever could have initially imaged. We are fundamentally changing the game here and a lot of it will affect animals, both positively and negatively. So one of the biggest things that we must think more clearly about is how to ensure that we maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of the future.

Everyone is concerned about feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050, and doing so in a healthy, sustainable, and humane manner. Very similar conversations were had 50 years ago during the Green Revolution. An insane amount of money was invested in developing advanced agricultural techniques to help feed the world. On the one hand, the Green Revolution has been hailed for saved a billion lives. On the other hand, some of the technological advances during that time have totally destroyed the soil and thus the ability of those communities to continue to grow food in the future. We need to think about future technologies with these types of examples in our minds. If we don’t learn from history, we’ll make similar mistakes.

One of the things that Thinking Animals United focuses on is the impact of ignoring animals in the discussions of our future, and its consequences on health, the environment, economics, and security etc. With new technologies, do you look beyond the agricultural aspect and the food issue?

Surely! Let’s take, for example, conservation. One of the difficulties with conservation is that many species live on land or water that has historically been impossible to monitor. Today, technologies like GPS tracking, aerial drones, and satellite imaging are used to monitor species populations in unprecedented ways. Another example is fish farming. What’s particularly difficult about the ocean is that after twelve nautical miles, it’s no man’s land, it’s international seas, and it’s simply too large for anyone to protect or monitor. Even when you get closer to land, it’s very hard to track fish farms, know where they are, and monitor what they are doing and how many fish they are raising. Simple things like satellite imagery and GPS, which aren’t even very new, are now being used in very innovative ways to help monitor farms on both land and sea that otherwise have been difficult to monitor. There is also super exciting work being done around leveraging big data to do things like identifying wildlife trafficking hotspots and track deforestation around the world.

They are also used to monitor agricultural animal abuses.

Right. So all the imagery technology is a great way of monitoring activity on lands and spaces in which we have never had the ability to do so. One amazing thing Google is doing is taking Google Maps and driving through wildlife parks to get a 3-D digital view of the preserve. This allows anyone around the world to get close to exotic animals that they otherwise would never be able to see. It’s opened up a sort of educational and experiential space. The world, with all of its amazing animals and geographies, is becoming available to anyone, anywhere, right on a computer desktop. This offers access to a sort of empathy, or at least an ability to appreciate what’s going on in the wild, which I hope will help people fight for wildlife staying wild.

Moreover, a lot of these technologies are opening up research opportunities that allow us to better understand the complexities and the intelligence of non-human animals in a way that we just haven’t been able to before. Those all seem to be somewhat small scale in terms of their impact, but I think, in the long term, these seemingly small things will be of vital importance not just for conservation, but also for the human understanding of what it means to be an animal on this Earth.

Seemingly small things will be of vital importance for conservation and the human understanding of what it means to be an animal on this Earth.

Cellular agriculture is so exciting because it embodies a convergence of sustainability, health, and animal welfare.

It seems almost impossible to separate technological advancements from broader societal change. What are the most exciting trends that you are observing?

I’m most excited about the new technological trend called cellular agriculture generally, and cultured meats specifically. Cellular agriculture is no longer stuck in science fiction; it will be, if not the future food, a large part of the future food. Traditionally, our food products are made with a very top-down approach; we grow a whole animal, and then we only use various parts for consumption. What cellular agriculture is trying to do is take this top-down system and flip it. We can grow food products from the cellular level up as opposed to the animal level down. What it means is that the inherent inefficiencies in our agricultural systems will be dramatically minimized. Just looking at the most efficient meat, the caloric inefficiencies alone are about 9:1. Some estimates are even higher…

What does 9:1 mean?

It means that we have to contribute nine calories of energy – in the form of feed – for every one calorie of energy that we get from chicken. Chicken, might I add, is also the most efficient animal in terms of energy conversion, so other meat is worse than a 9:1 ratio. We can think of animal agriculture as a food production system with animals as food “factories” (unfortunately, such commodification is normal parlance in many agricultural circles – for example, when we talk about livestock, which is inventory that happens to be alive). Animals are simply inefficient factories for food; they use a lot of energy that is expended either simply staying alive or to produce things humans do not generally consume, like beaks and feathers.

Cellular agriculture is so exciting because it embodies a convergence of sustainability, health, and animal welfare. A concern about what people put in their bodies and where it comes from is on the rise in the consumer zeitgeist right now. When the world wakes up to the fact that we’ve been destroying our environment by using inefficient and inhumane food production methods, and when we ask ourselves what might these methods look like if we started over, cellular agriculture may be an answer. It is exciting on a plethora of levels: not only is it healthier for people because you won’t have any growth hormones or antibiotics, in theory you can even fortify the product that you’re making to have B-12 or more vitamin D – whatever you want. And, most importantly, it will make the “animal factory” obsolete, relegating factory farms to history books.

How does it work?

Cellular agriculture is simply building agricultural products from cell cultures. One form of cellular agriculture is culturing meat. There a lot of technological advances that are happening right now and will need to happen in the future for this to be a scalable model that feeds a neighborhood, let alone the world. It is a process by which you take a harmless biopsy of animal tissue, put it on some form of scaffold on which it can grow, and then culture it in an environment that mimics the animal’s body with all the nutrients it needs to propagate. The result is animal meat, chemically identical, but grown outside of an animal. The golden snitch of this whole process is a cell line that can be grown and replicated indefinitely, without having to go back and harvest more cells from an animal. The whole process is very similar to beer fermentation. So what cellular agriculture might look like in the future is very similar what microbreweries look like today. You’ll have large bioreactors growing meat in a totally transparent manner; instead of laws restricting people from seeing what’s going on, you will be invited to come in and look at what’s being grown. These meat production factories will be anywhere and everywhere, in every town, with minimal environmental impact and total transparency. Paul McCartney has said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. Cellular agriculture will be built around glass walls, but people will still be eating meat! For lots of people who care about sustainability, health, and animal welfare, it offers us a picture of a much better world.

What’s exciting right now is that there’s a lot of VC money interested. People like Bill Gates are fascinated by the future of food and meat alternatives. Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother, is interested in exploring these technologies. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist, author, and philosopher, posted a question on his Twitter asking: “If cultured meat is molecularly identical to beef, pork, etc. and tastes the same, will you switch to eating it?” Over 14,000 people responded, and 83% said they would. Notice, it’s not “would you try it”; it’s “would you switch to eating it”. It sounds like there could be widespread adoption. So to me personally, cellular agriculture is the most exciting thing because we’re going to have almost 10 billion people by 2050, 80% of whom will be living in increasingly urban areas, and we need to figure out a way to produce sustainable food for them. Most importantly, this technology has the potential to impact billions if not trillions of animals every year, which alone seems like a good reason why everyone should be working on it.

Sam Harris Tweet

So what’s preventing this new industry from developing faster?

Yeah, why isn’t it here today? There are so many reasons. Cultured meat has some of the highest barriers to development and adoption. First and foremost, the science is not there yet. We have been culturing mammalian cells for biomedical research, but we have not been culturing cells for food. The whole regulatory and legal system around food is not built for these new types of technologies, so there are all of these unchartered regulatory issues. For one thing, no one knows whether cultured meat or dairy should be regulated by the USDA or the FDA. Most of the public doesn’t even know what this is, and for those who do, I think there is a sort of general “ick factor.” We need to get over this thought that because it’s grown in a lab, somehow it’s gross. If anything, the meat people currently eat is disgusting; grown in horrendous ways; filled with antibiotics and hormones; and devastating for our environment. Also, there aren’t enough academic institutions that are doing research in this space, so there aren’t scientists that have training to be able to start these companies to develop these technologies. There’s this amazing technology that can change the world, but we’re not training people to build it. New Harvest, a non-profit in New York City accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, is focused very much on this issue.

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Then again, the upside is that meat is only going to get more expensive in the future, and these technologies are only going to get cheaper and be developed faster. Some disagree about the future, but it seems to me, or at least I hope, that cultured meat is an inevitability. The question is: will it happen too late? Or, at least, could it happen sooner? I don’t think we can wait for academic institutions to train an abundance of scientists to start these companies; I don’t think we can wait for meat to get so expensive that consumers demand an alternative; I don’t think we can wait for the world to get sicker by relying so heavily on unhealthy meat; I don’t think we can wait for a total reorganization of regulatory systems to allow for these products to come into existence; I don’t think we can wait while trillions of animals are slaughtered annually to feed our hungry mouths. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto at Facebook is “move quickly and break stuff.” Despite the ostensibly reckless tone, it seems clear to me that our industrial agricultural system needs to be broken quickly.

Who or what is driving the development of this new industry at the moment?

There are a couple of people, too few of them quite frankly. There’s a terrific nonprofit in New York City called New Harvest accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture and helping us move into a post-animal bio-economy. They focus primarily on turning cellular agriculture into an academic discipline by developing the necessary curricula and securing grants for academic research. New Harvest also does work on the regulatory side of things, they help start companies, and they are generally a thought-leader in this space. There’s also a new nonprofit called the Good Food Institute who is using markets and food technology to develop both plant-based and cultured meat alternatives. They’re doing things like developing the legal and regulatory pathways for adoption of these technologies, helping start companies in the space, assisting existing companies in various capacities. On top of all that, there are actually a few companies doing this. Mosa Meat is one, headed up by Mark Post, the creator of the first cultured meat burger. Their first burger, which was really just a proof of concept, was funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. That first burger cost over $300,000. So it’s quite amazing to have visionaries like Sergey Brin who understand the environmental, health, and animal welfare implications of cellular agriculture and are willing to place big bets and take risks to develop these technologies. It will take years for any products to come to market and it’s going to take a lot more money and a lot more research in order for that dream to become a reality.

What’s your prediction, when will we see these products on the shelves?

Oh gosh, I honestly do not know. Some claim that cultured meat products could take as few as five years to be in your grocery stores. I have a feeling that we are more than ten years away, but I don’t know. Depending on how much money you have and where you live you might be able to eat it in two, maybe three, years for a pretty penny. All of these predictions are contingent upon various technological breakthroughs, regulatory acceptance, public demand, and an increase in companies developing this stuff. Unless more academic institutions train scientists in cellular agriculture, unless more entrepreneurs start companies in the space, and unless the public votes with their wallets and purchases the products, it will never happen!

It seems to me, or at least I hope, that cultured meat is an inevitability.

You mentioned the post-animal bio-economy. Once we arrive there, what will happen to animals? What incentives will there be to care about animals, apart from sentimental reasons?

A post-animal bio-economy sounds quite utopian, and it remains an open question if we’ll ever get there. I’m hopeful we will, but the timeline here is probably quite long. Fifty years? Eighty years? Those may be too optimistic. To be clear, the bio-economy is strictly about economic activity derived from biotechnology, but I think your question digs deeper to a more fundamental question about what will happen to animals when we no longer need them economically (when livestock are no longer live stock).

Animals are incredibly important for teaching us things like empathy, and for better understanding ourselves and our place in the world.

If anything, I think once we collectively recognize and move beyond the horrible ways in which we currently treat farmed animals, animals used in research, animals kept in zoos, and animals used for entertainment, we’ll be in a better place to care about animals then we are today because we will have opened our eyes to the value these creatures have in-and-of-themselves. But there are also anthropocentric and non-sentimental incentives to care for animals. For one thing, they are necessary to maintain a stable ecosystem – that’s an incentive that we all have. Animals are also incredibly important for teaching us things like empathy, and for better understanding ourselves and our place in the world. People much smarter than I have said that you can judge societies by how well they treat animals. There’s something incredibly valuable about learning how to speak up for the voiceless and protect the powerless.

It is a worthwhile question to ask what a future might look like when animals are not objectified for human ends. The animals who live in the wild will remain in the wild (but hopefully we won’t hunt them!). There will certainly be a lot less farmed animals, but there will likely always be some. I bet there’ll be an increase in farmed animals becoming companion animals, and of course they won’t be called ‘farmed animals’ anymore. Our notion of companion animals will expand. My neighbors in Massachusetts have chickens that they love more than most folk love their dogs, and these people have no economic incentive to keep the chickens. They do it because they enjoy living with them. I hope we’ll be able to expand our notion of the human-animal bond in a parallel manner to the expansion of our moral circle.

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Do you see a scenario where there are still small farms that slaughter animals for food and that becomes the food for high net-worth individuals, while the bioengineered food becomes the food for the masses, if you will?

This has happened with food forever, right? Lobster used to be fed to prisoners in the United States, the irony of which is, of course, that now it’s one of our most coveted delicacies. White bread was consumed by the rich and whole wheat bread was only for the poor for most of history, the trend of which reversed in the late 20th century. Potatoes have a similar history. So, I have no doubt that, as technology changes our relationship with food, so too will our notion of luxury foods change. I think there’s a future where bioengineered food is not only for the masses but also produces luxury goods in ways that we have yet to even imagine. Possibilities include culturing everything from exotic species to extinct species (think Woolly Mammoth burgers or Dodo bird burritos). Cellular agriculture also pushes us to reimagine what food is and how it is constituted, so the possibilities for reinvention are endless. If we have this technology that is so much better for our environment, our health, and our animals, everything it produces sounds a lot more appetizing and luxurious than the average chicken consumed today!

What are the main psychological, cultural, mental obstacles preventing people from embracing these new technologies and seeing them as something to look forward to?

There are almost innumerable technological barriers that will need to be overcome. Assuming that happens, there will nevertheless be plenty of other issues, many of which stem from public perceptions. The GMO debate is a perfect example of something that could be very damning for cellular agriculture, and in my opinion flies in the face of science and progress. The anti-GMO rhetoric embodies a sort of parochial conservativism and anti-scientism that will only hinder our ability to really revolutionize our food system for the better. There are lots of these public perceptions around food that will be very difficult to overcome. Some of them are issues with education, whereas some of them are more cultural. But given the few examples I gave earlier about the history of high-end and low-end foods; given the ubiquity of things like kale and acai berries these days; and given the rebranding of some fish species (like the Patagonian toothfish into the Chilean sea bass), I am convinced that food culture can most definitely change.

A deeper barrier that might not be as easily overcome, and is probably a valuable barrier to moving too quickly here, is a concern for the unintended consequences of our actions. For instance, I care a lot about fish. There’s been a lot of really interesting research on the movie Finding Nemo. It has totally catalyzed an interest in young people about the inner emotional and social lives of fish. At the same time, after Finding Nemo came out, demand for clownfish as companion animals tripled. Clownfish went locally extinct in multiple parts of Southeast Asia. After the movie came out, owners started releasing clownfish into waterways in which they simply couldn’t survive. Now there’s a concern that the blue tang will have a similar fate with Finding Dora, the new movie. So on the one hand you think this is terrific, this is an opportunity for people to learn about some species that they otherwise might not have cared about. But we cannot overlook the unintended consequences.

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Similar concerns exist in every nook and cranny of the food system. Take, for example, the earlier discussed Green Revolution. If you ask me fifty years ago, I would have probably said: “we should design new plants that have higher yields to feed the world!” I’d be totally on board, and now looking back we can see some of the damage that the Green Revolution caused. That’s not to say it didn’t save lives (over a billion, they say), but it just means we ought to be cautious when we begin to alter natural processes. If we take the time to think through some of these questions early on, we might be able to mitigate whatever risk there is in the future.

This may not become a big thing until it becomes a necessity, until we can no longer rely on traditional farming. When do you think that could happen?

It already has happened! I’m a bit pessimistic about this because it seems to me that we’ve already passed that point of economic necessity and yet we’ve come up with ingenious political, social, economic gerrymandering to make it all still work. Most of the ways the animal agriculture system stays afloat are really dangerous because they either push responsibility into the future or unload burdens onto communities that otherwise can’t deal with them. I don’t know how long it will be until we end farming subsidies or stop slaughterhouses that are built in rural communities where most of the work relies on illegal immigrants or people in poverty, with extremely high turnover, health issues, and minimal OSHA oversight. The agricultural system has been creative in doing whatever necessary to maintain the status quo, but at some point you can’t bend the system anymore before it breaks.

I am convinced that food culture can most definitely change.
I tend to think, perhaps too optimistically, that technology is a great equalizer and democratizer.

Do you think there’s a danger of these new technologies becoming a source of greater economic inequality in the world? They may usher in an era of food democracy for the world, but just as well we may end up with only a few centers of highly technological production that will dominate the entire world.

The tragedy here is that we have many values (food security, sustainability, animal welfare, etc.), all of which involve tradeoffs. Some of the more sustainable farming methods, for example, are the least animal friendly. I tend to think, perhaps too optimistically, that technology is a great equalizer and democratizer. I really like the example of the telephone to express this point. The developed world spent a lot of time and a lot of resources building infrastructure for the modern telephone. We invested an insane amount of money in developing the technology and literally laying a telephone line down every road. But land lines became obsolete pretty quickly because the technology development sped up. What’s amazing is that the lesser developed countries didn’t spend the money or the resources building this infrastructure, and today they have cell phones everywhere. They were able to leapfrog over our now obsolete infrastructure investment and adopt the more efficient and less infrastructure-intensive technology.

If you parallel land lines to industrial animal agriculture, a lot of places around the world have not been able to industrialize animal agriculture to the extent that we have. If we can develop technologies to allow those places to skip a lot of the earlier stages, in the grand scheme of things it can actually be very good for animals around the world. That being said, there will certainly be inequalities in food systems. There are vast inequalities in food systems even in cities like New York. This is a pervasive problem, but there are vast opportunities, particularly for cellular agriculture, to help solve them.

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What sparked your initial interest in this whole field?

The interest comes from many places I guess, but for me personally the catalyst of it all actually was going to college and being exposed to various ideas. I happened to go a very liberal college where questions about food, justice, and sustainability were as ever present as the red solo cups filled with warm beer.

Which college?

Kenyon College out in rural Ohio. I also spent one year studying animal ethics at Oxford. Animal ethics is still very much in its infancy in academic circles but when I was in school not that long ago it was even more so. At Kenyon there weren’t many people focusing on these topics. At Oxford, on the other hand, there were. That experience left me with a desire to take a lot of the really impactful conversations that are had in the cloistered walls of the academy and figure out ways in which those can be had in meaningful ways with the broader public. I spent the year with all these really smart people who were really passionate, having all these amazing conversations about how to live a good life (I was studying philosophy) and a lot of that involved rethinking our view of animals, but it didn’t seem like those conversations were being had anywhere else. That was one of the (many) reasons why I didn’t go into academia.

One of my goals is figuring out how to move these ideas forward with a broad group of people in a way that is easily understood and actionable. It’s really simple to express things with complexity; it’s quite complex to express things with simplicity. People should be having meaning conversations about animals, our environment, and our food system not only in board rooms or in classrooms, but in the checkout line at the grocery store, in ways that people can actually understand the implications of their actions and perhaps change them. That’s really what I’m passionate about trying to figure out how to do.

What do you want to achieve in terms of cultural change?

Thanks for saving the easiest question for last! Ask me again in thirty years and we’ll see what I have to say. Right now, I’m particularly concerned about fish. Of all the challenges facing animals today, I feel that the plight of fish is one of the hardest and most neglected ones. I really hope that in some small way I can help inspire a broader cultural movement to change the way in which humanity views fish. We’ve totally missed the boat on this (no pun intended). I think fish are probably where chickens were fifteen years ago. It will take a lot of time for these things to change. Everyone cares about cats and dogs, in the United States at least. Then some people care about charismatic megafauna (lions, tigers, elephants, etc.), some care about farmed animals, but very few care much about fish. This is my issue with the animal welfare and conservation movement as a whole also.

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Almost ninety percent of all fish stocks in the world’s oceans are either fully exploited or overexploited. That’s crazy. This means that only about ten percent of wild fish stocks have any more fish to give us beyond what we are currently taking. If that were the case with other species, particularly terrestrial animals, conservation groups would be having a fit. You do see this with tuna, but perhaps that is because tuna is a fish that we love to eat; it’s a high end food commodity now. But regardless, there seems to be an unwarranted moral blindness when it comes to fish. I’m very interested in figuring out how to get people, both inside and outside the advocacy world, to include fish in their moral horizon.

I feel that the plight of fish is one of the hardest and most neglected ones.

Feedback is welcome. Questions and comments can be sent directly to maxelder@gmail.com

144983677032472Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.

All images on this page are courtesy of Mr. Max Elder.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.