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Plant-Based Future Sounds like an Experiment in a Lab

Vasant Dhar/Substack | 09/01/2024

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My Recent Podcast

My recent guest on Brave New World was Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University:

Peter is one of the world’s best known moral philosophers. He is the recipient of the 2021 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, which is awarded to “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.”

There’s also a Peter Singer annual award named in his honor.

Peter has had a big impact on my life. I stopped eating meat after reading his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. I couldn’t support an industry that imposes suffering on animals at the scale he describes. It was really that simple for me. Peter’s new edition of the book, released earlier this year, Animal Liberation NOW, looks at the innards of the meat industry and its broader impacts. We warmed up the conversation in his Princeton office, talking about his early days in graduate school, what got him thinking about animals as beings with a moral status, and the consideration they deserve. We covered a range of topics including animal suffering, the environment, the impact of AI on animal farming, and the application of utilitarian thinking to moral issues. I learned a lot.

So, check out the conversation.

Peter also encourages donations to a number of charities that are listed on the website thelifeyoucansaveorg.

How Am I Doin’?

I decided to drive down to Princeton for my recording with Peter since I much prefer face to face conversations, and besides, it was a beautiful day. Unlike NYU, where every building has a guard, Princeton was refreshingly open, with no visible security staff. Walking between the buildings reminded me of Russell Crowe playing Nobel Laureate John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind.

While I was setting up the microphones, Peter went out to fetch some water. I looked around for a power outlet for my laptop, but couldn’t find one. Peter’s main workspace is a long desk, roughly four feet deep, that runs along a wall. I spotted a power strip adjacent to the wall under the desk, so I crawled under to find a spare outlet. It was full, so I slid back out.

When Peter returned, I mentioned that the power strip was full, and asked whether there was another outlet. “No there isn’t,” he said, “but I’m sure I can unplug one of the existing devices from the power strip under my desk.”

I was about to volunteer, but before I had finished saying “I’m happy to…,” Peter was under the desk on his knees. In a fluid movement, he disconnected something, plugged in my charger, and slid back out a lot more gracefully than I had.

Wow, I recall thinking, he’s clearly vegetarian, and he probably does yoga or something equivalent on a regular basis. Note to self.

A question I often get is how I feel not eating after being a longstanding carnivore. A lot better is my answer, although I need to learn how to stay as limber as Peter.


How do you get sufficient protein, is the other question I’m often asked.

A colleague recently educated me about proteins. She said people consume more than they need. So, I did some digging, and sure enough, there’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting that many people in the US consume far more protein than they require. Here are some useful numbers.

The average adult of my size needs roughly 50 grams of protein per day. One hundred grams of hamburger have roughly 14 grams of protein.  In comparison, 100 grams of beans provide 21 grams of protein, and 100 grams of cheese provide 25 grams. The bottom line is that they provide a lot more protein by weight than meat.

So why do we keep consuming large amounts of meat?

Is the taste that good? Maybe, if it’s Kobe beef, where each cow is stroked down individually every day I can see the fuss, but industrial meat is relatively uninspiring. Indeed, I am hopeful about new technologies such as fermentation for creating tasty protein substitutes that I discussed with my fantastic podcast guest Paul Shapiro, founder of The Better Meat Company.

But I suspect that meat consumption has much to do with culture, misinformation and inertia. For starters, our kids have no idea about the ugliness of animal farming. Books show Bessie or Winnie in old fashioned farms. Words such as beef and pork mask us from dead cows and pigs.  And the product is nicely packaged and very affordable.

Meat is what we grow up with as the default in most cultures, and inertia does the rest. We are largely unaware of the toll animal farming exacts on our environment, such as a fifth of greenhouse gases and other forms of water and soil pollution.

Considering the impact of animal farming on the environment, I am intrigued by the possibility of using “nudges,” where the consumption of meat requires an active choice rather than it being the default. Indeed, Peter mentioned that some hospitals now offer plant-based food as the default, unless requested otherwise. That’s a nudge.

Nudging has demonstrated remarkable success in areas such as tax collection and energy conservation. The intervention, fleshed out by Thaler and Sunstein in their book called Nudge, does not restrict the set of available choices, but rather, makes the default a choice that is the most socially or economically desirable. For example, in order to encourage people to save, making the default choice an opt-in into a savings plan rather than requiring an active choice by people to opt into a plan, leads to massive increases in savings compared to policy options such as subsidies. Coming up with the right nudges is key.

There are a few other tailwinds. A larger percentage of younger people in the US prefer plant-based foods relative to older Americans. Twenty years ago, people would look at you funny if you didn’t eat meat. As I write this, I’m reminded of a hilarious 2005 movie called “Everything is Illuminated,” written and directed by my former neighbor and animal lover Liev Schreiber, about what it’s like being vegetarian in Eastern Europe.

Last but not least, here’s a video of me making my favorite Kashmiri vegetarian recipes that I shared from last Christmas to raise money for an animal shelter in Kashmir. Try ‘em. If you’re inspired, please contribute to any of charities Peter mentioned that are listed at thelifeyoucansaveorg.

(This article was first published in Substack.)

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