Dairy Without The Cow?
In the past couple of years, you may have heard of clean meat — also known as cultured meat, in-vitro meat, lab meat, and more. It’s an exciting new development in the meat industry, as it presents the opportunity to phase out animal farming while still allowing people to eat “real meat.” This article explores the ethics of clean milk, a product which is even more nascent in development and its awareness among the public.
Let’s look briefly at how clean milk is created. Through studying cow genes in a pre-existing library of sequenced DNA, researchers have identified the genes that produce casein and whey (the proteins in dairy products). They can then recreate those genes and add them to yeast. The yeast ferments sugars to create whey and casein, and can then be filtered out. Finally, plant-based fats and nutrients can be added.
The closest this process comes to a cow is in studying DNA. So, unlike clean meat (which, in some incarnations, currently uses Fetal Bovine Serum as a growth medium), clean milk does not involve using animal bodies. As such, clean milk is arguably vegan. (In fact, it seems that fewer animals are harmed than through plant-based milks, because some number of animals die when crops are harvested.) But it’s still worth thinking about the ethics here. Animal protectionists have raised concerns about clean milk, and whether it can ever be acceptable to consume cows’ milk. During this discussion, the author – who is in favor of clean milk – responds in three ways to their worries.
The author’s first point draws a distinction between an ideal and a non-ideal world. This point highlights the distinction between ethical perfection (perhaps, no consumption of animal products) and a more practical ethics that better lends itself to the real world (accepting products like clean milk). From this standpoint, we might say that promoting clean milk is a better strategic decision.
The second point addresses the concern that clean milk encourages people to think of cows as “less-than,” since we would continue drinking their milk. This would leave cows in the category of “food-producing” animals, distinct from humans. However, the author points out that we don’t instrumentalize humans who donate hair for wigs, or organs for transplants. Additionally, it’s argued that we not only could, but should create human breastmilk through clean milk techniques. Clean milk shouldn’t mean denigrating cows; if anything, it means recognizing the similarities between our two species, not reinforcing the differences.
The third point criticizes vegan opposition to the idea of milk as food. Here, the author goes through five main arguments that have been raised against considering milk as food: metaphysical (i.e. conceptual), ethical, disgust-based, health-based, and racial.
Conceptually, it is difficult to deny that milk is food. Unlike meat, which exists first and foremost as a body, milk is produced to nourish the young of a species – it simply is food.
The counterpoint to the ethical arguments of slogans like “not your mother, not your milk”, is that sharing milk is far from unheard of. Today, women may give their milk to other people’s children, using social media to facilitate sharing. Cultural heritage tells of milk shared across species – from the classical story of Romulus and Remus, suckled by a wolf, to humans suckling pigs, monkeys, and bears.
In addressing the argument that milk is disgusting, the author wonders whether this is rooted in misogyny. Disgust at how the dairy industry operates – repeatedly impregnating cows only to separate them from their calves – is perfectly rational. But why is this disgust extended to milk itself?
Although milk can be unhealthy – both for those who are not lactose tolerant and for those who eat too much cheese and butter – it’s hard to claim that it’s so unhealthy that it doesn’t count as food. And clean milk could be healthier than conventional milk. This is true not only because we can change the nutrients it contains, but also because we could avoid the risk of diseases transmitted between animals and humans – not to mention drastically cutting pollution.
Finally and on a related note, the author turns to arguments about milk and racism. A much higher proportion of Westerners are able to digest milk than non-Westerners. But since we can take the lactose out of clean milk, this no longer makes a difference.
After going through these counterarguments, the article concludes that animal protectionists should support clean milk. The author argues that clean milk seems like the best way forward not only strategically, but also ethically – those who don’t want to give up dairy can still enjoy it, and those who reject animal exploitation can rest easy.