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Are diet pills immoral? If technological fixes exist, we should use them

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September 21, 2021   5 mins

The other day, I ate a fake burger. It looked, felt and tasted like a burger, even quite a good burger. If you had simply handed it to me and not said “this is a new high-tech vegan burger”, I might not have noticed.

It was a Beyond burger, made from plant proteins. Back in 2017, when I tried an Impossible burger in California, they still were rare. Now you can buy them at Burger King; McDonald’s is making its own called (inevitably) the McPlant. About $7 billion dollars’ worth of vegan meat was sold in 2020 – the large majority of it replacing the traditional meat burger.

Making fake burgers takes a fraction of the energy and land that making a beef burger does and fewer cows end up dead. But, and this is crucial, I still get to eat a burger.

There was an alternative way around this, of course. Instead of developing a low-impact way of fulfilling my desire for a burger, we could have encouraged me not to want burgers any more, or (more likely) to suppress it. We could have run advert campaigns fronted by earnest celebrities telling me that burgers are bad. We could even have simply banned burgers. And maybe it would have worked.

But then I wouldn’t have got to eat a burger, and I wanted a burger.

On the whole, I think fulfilling human desires is a good thing. Not always, but most of the time, giving people things they want makes them happier. So why not?

But not everyone thinks this is a good thing. There’s a name for it: “solutionism”, the “foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social and political problems”. People who worry about solutionism say that, instead of finding technological quick fixes for society’s ills, we ought to concentrate on the root causes: to change our social structures, to change our behaviour, to change policy.

I strongly disagree. We should do both.

In the UK after the war, suicide rates went up. By the mid-Sixties, according to the national registry, they reached something like 14 per 100,000 men per year, and about 10 per 100,000 women1. But by 1971, they had dropped significantly, to about 10 for men and seven for women. What happened? Did we make progress in solving society’s underlying problems and make Britain a more tolerable place to live?

Well, maybe. But a more proximate explanation is that in the mid-Sixties — for reasons unrelated to suicide — the British energy supply largely switched from coal gas to natural gas.

At the time, many suicides in the UK involved carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning: putting one’s head in the oven. That became impossible with natural gas, which is essentially free of carbon monoxide. In 1962/3, about 40% of suicides used CO poisoning; by 1970/71, fewer than 10% of them did. Suicides by other means went up, a bit, but nowhere near enough to compensate; total suicide rates went down by about a third. Making it harder to kill oneself stopped a lot of people from doing it; it turned out the impulse to end their life was transient.

Suicide is a problem with many underlying causes. But a simple technological fix — changing from coal gas to natural gas — reduced the problem significantly.

How about other social ills? How about obesity? Somewhere around a quarter of British adults are classed as obese. A subset of people, about 3% of the population, are “morbidly” obese — that is, a BMI over 40, equivalent to a six-foot-tall person weighing more than 20 stone. This has serious health implications, and many of them would like to lose weight, but can’t — their brain fights them, making them feel as though they are starving. Asking them to stop eating is not that different from asking them to stop breathing.

Last week, the neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet wrote a piece about a promising pharmaceutical treatment for obesity: that is, an actually effective weight-loss pill. I thought it was exciting, but several people responding to me thought it was “dystopian” or “depressing”: people should diet and exercise. We should change society and behaviour, not rely on pills.

But again: I think that’s just wrong. Changing society can be good! We should make cities more walkable; we should make food healthier and exercise easier, and doing so would probably reduce obesity and improve health. But for some people that won’t be enough, because not everyone has the same levels of food craving or impulse control. A pill that makes their job easier, that levels the playing field, would also be good.

There are many examples like this. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted and causes cervical cancer. You can either try to encourage abstinence and safe sex (difficult) or you can vaccinate children before they reach the age of sexual activity (easy). It reduces cervical cancer by more than 90%. And people still get to have sex!

Society is really hard to change. It is made up of millions of people with their own desires and incentives, and there is limited scope for altering it — you can reduce smoking by banning it in pubs, you can reduce drink-driving through education and enforcement (drink-driving deaths are about 15% of what they were in 1979), but you’re battling against what people want.

And people getting what they want is a good thing. You could almost argue that it is the only good thing: what is the point of life, if not being happy and making others happy? If people want to smoke, and if they could do so without harming their health, what’s the problem?

So technological fixes are helpful. For example, vaping represents a way of giving people what they want — the fun of a nicotine high — at a hugely reduced health cost.

The most obvious place where this is relevant is climate change. People want to fly, they want to drive, they want to heat their homes and use electricity. We could try to transform human desires, and make us not want those things, or we could try to make us deny our own wants. For some of us that will be successful and for others it will not.  But we could let everyone have the things they wanted, it would be better.

That’s why things like carbon capture are actually pretty exciting, things like the enormous fall in the cost of solar energy, or zero-emission aircraft. This means people getting to travel, getting to live in comfortable homes with light and heating, being able to eat food they like, with fewer negative costs.

I don’t like the tendency to compare movements, such as environmentalism, to religions — it’s too easy and is often misleading. But I do think that for some people, there’s a tendency to confuse motive and means: they think that because many of the things we want and enjoy have harmful side-effects, so the things we want and enjoy are bad in themselves. Like Puritans opposed to hunting not because the animals suffer but because the hunters enjoyed it, we think that because we sometimes need to suffer for noble purposes, that suffering itself is noble.

It’s not. We may have to change our behaviour — eat less, smoke and drink less, fly less — to gain some other good, such as improved health or reduced environmental impact. But that is an unfortunate by-product, not the point in itself. If technological fixes exist, we should use them.

Plant-based burgers are one thing; soon, hopefully, we will see real meat that’s been grown in a lab at an affordable price (although it’s always a bit further away than its proponents claim). People could order steaks or lamb chops that have never been attached to a sentient being, that don’t require acres of land or horrible cruelty. For some people this is a bleak dystopia. But for me it’s a utopian vision: people getting what they want, at a fraction of the environmental and moral cost. Let me have my damn burger.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Note: this is probably an undercount. The ONS suicide data only goes back to 1981, but it starts at 19.5 per 100,000 men per year. The trend, though, is real.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
2 years ago

As usual Chivers overlooks the unforeseen bad consequences of such “easy” fixes. My particular “beef” is with the food chain manipulation. How do we know that eating plant burgers will be good for us all long term. We actually don’t know that. Likewise “meat grown in the lab”. Will it truly contain all the nutritional value that field grown meat -to coin a phrase – does? We have already tried this approach once, replacing animal fats throughout the food chain particularly in processed foods, with polyunsaturated fats , vegetable oil, and look how that’s turned out – obesity, and inflammatory diseases have skyrocketed (there is an explanation for this involving mitochondrial damage and other mechanisms, too complicated to explain here)
I don’t want your technological fix forced down my throat. And as for cruelty to cows? Well if we don’t need cows, there won’t be ANY cows. They might go extinct. Why do you think they talk about ‘rare breed’ pigs or try and save historic carthorse breeds? They will be left to die out, not frolic happily in fields!!

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

It is certainly true that we breed cows to eat them – and wouldn’t bother otherwise. A vegetarian world would be one with very few cows in it.

From the cow’s point of view, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘it is better to have lived and lost, than never to have lived at all.’

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Now that would make a really good “Dark Side” cartoon

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

It is true that if we evaluate the lives of cows from a QALY perspective – quality adjusted life years – then humans do seem to have had quite a beneficial effect on the cow in general. They live lives free from predators and with free healthcare etc, and there are of course far more of them than could possibly exist without humans making sure that they do.

This does not mean that each individual cow ought to feel grateful to us as they’re on the final leg of their life, of course. I’m just saying that the human practice of eating meat does not introduce a moral harm into the world that would not exist in some other form if we stopped eating meat, that’s all.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago

I agree with your first perspective ‘ easy fix’ is not a fix . Just like the vaccines. I agree that Tom has never really thought long enough and formed a personal perspective, an opinion and written his thoughts down. As he says “ I strongly disagree
.” There are always 2 sides to consider.

I do not understand what you mean by extinct cows!!! If you mean – no more animal farming, then I agree and feel that the way we farm animals starting from the last century is totally wrong. Our ( generic) farming methods involve antibiotics & medication of animals, animal cruelty, use of land to feed animals where it could be used for growing crops for people. And then some disease is discovered on the farm and on the behest of the scientists, the whole county stock needs to be destroyed!!

Today we have had to resort to such practices because of the growing population & demand for meat, which used to be consumed in sensible proportions is now cheap, of poor quality and readily available & is being consumed copiously for breakfast, lunch, dinner by everyone. It’s just not sustainable.

Small farm holdings with care for animals and products and respect for the methods of farming, these are the farms we want. None of that intensive farming – it’s no good for the animals, it’s no good for the humans.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alka Hughes-Hallett
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I agree
 strongly. This notion that animals simply exist for our pleasure or desire, whatever that desire might be says a lot about the people who think that. It truly makes me think that human’kind’ is doomed.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“This notion that animals simply exist for our pleasure or desire, whatever that desire might be says a lot about the people who think that.”

This is not a correct assessment of how meat eaters see the animals in question. The fact is that a cow spends its life doing exactly what it would do if it was wild, with the important distinction that humans keep it from dying horribly by other means. In a crucial sense the cow does not “live” to serve humans, it only dies for that reason. Since it’s going to die anyway, this is OK.

We aren’t eating immortal cows, after all. And when we humans die and are pushing up daisies, the microbes that feast upon us aren’t doing anything wrong, either.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“…use of land to feed animals where it could be used for growing crops for people.”
Well no actually, it couldn’t, because people prefer to eat beef than eating the vegetables that the cow prefers to eat. This is not a trifling or irrelevant objection, for the obvious reason that all the vegetables we might eat instead are in fact available to us irrespective of the availability of meat, yet the preference persists.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Absolutely. Probably the majority of animals that exist do so because it suits people that they do. If that ends so do the animals.
I can imagine a dystopia in which all but a handful of livestock has died out, we then find that veganburgers and labsteaks cause cancer, and that we don’t have enough cows left to breed new cattle herds from without genetically engineering them.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

You will own nothing and be happy plebe. Including eating frankenmeat…. or else off to the camps you go.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

There it is again. The misconception is that a Vegan diet would be effective for weight loss. The part that is fattening about the fast-food burger is the sugar in the sauces and the bread. Sugar and bread are 100% vegan.
I will not hold my breath for the miracle pill. We evolve to be greedy regarding calories, our ancestors were most of the time on the verge of starvation so we developed several strategies to store energy. One of the strategies is the ability we have to lower our metabolism. This is the Achilles heel of so many diets, we actually train our body to be even more prone to weight gain. Plus food has complicated relationships with our emotional state. For good and for worst.
I wish the scientists all the luck in the world.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Came here to say that vegan diets are deficient ws beaten to it. In addition to your astute comment, I’ll note that pills won’t give us the whole system benefits that exercise does. Working up a sweat does wonders for your brain, cardiovasvular system and endocrine systems and no pill can replicate that.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

While I’m a great fan of exercise, in terms of weight loss exercise is not all it’s cracked up to be. The problem is that if you really exercise you simply eat more. I’ll give you an example. I regularly bike 1450-200 miles a week. A 100 mile ride with approx. 5000 ft of climbing consumes about 2000-2500 cals depending on one’s weight (and I know this number exactly since I have a power meter and therefore know exactly what the total energy is that I put into the pedals, from which one can calculate calories burnt since the efficiency is around 25% i.e. total kJ put into the pedals ~ total kcals burnt). A pound of fat is worth 3600 kcals. Now, not only does one have to eat while cycling any sort of distance in excess of 20 miles (as otherwise one will just bonk), but one feels famished when one gets home and then grazes on food for the rest of the day to basically replenish the calories one has burnt. That’s why, if one is realistic it’s even hard to lose one pound a week as this requires a net calorie deficit of 500 kcals per day which is not easy to do. Sure at the beginning of any diet one can lose a ton of apparent weight, but it’s not real weight but mainly water. After the 1st week things go very very slowly. So if one could take a pill to say increase one’s metabolism just a fraction, that would be helpful as one would then see real progress.
As for Chivers’ notion that veggie burgers are healthier than real burgers, all I can say is that he has thoroughly bought in to propaganda and virtue signaling, as veggie burgers loaded with pea protein might taste OK but they are certainly not good for one. The real deal not only tastes better but is actually very healthy.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Regarding exercise: this is what we “think we know”, exercise isn’t in fact a great way to lose weight. Losing weight isn’t the difficult part of the equation, it’s maintaining the weight loss that is the tricky bit. What has been observed is that the people that have more success maintaining the weight loss are the people that exercise.
Exercise is irreplaceable, we evolved to move and to have a certain level of muscular stress. The best combination for health goals, in general, is coupling running with moderate weight training.
About this I advise this book:

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Interesting. A few years ago I lost five stone over about seven months. After that point, I started to regain weight on exactly the same calorie intake on which I had previously lost it. That is, eating 1500-2000 calories a day initially took weight off but after about 7 months it had become an excess so I started to regain.
To keep it off I’d have needed to drop to 1,000 calories a day. Not only is that not enough for an adult male but for sure after a few more months I’d have been gaining weight on that too.
So I gave up. I was hungry all the time, not allowed to eat or drink much of what I liked, and not even thinner. I now weigh the same as I would have done on the diet, but I can eat and drink whatever I like.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Just go largely low carb as a lifestyle and you don’t have to worry about the amount you eat and the weight will fall off/stay off. Your general health will also improve all things being equal. I have maintained this diet easily for a good 15 years and sneak treats as well. I am small and slim.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

I am also convinced that low carb is the answer.
Vastly reduce the bread, pasta, rice and potatoes – the fillers.Sugar too.
You can have days off but if you spend most of the week like this, especially with some exercise, I find the weight goes off and stays off.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

That has certainly worked for me. I now avoid, except for special occasions, bread, pasta, potatoes (and potato chips), taco chips and tortillas, corn, ice cream and cookies, And no sugary soda drinks. That’s all it takes to lose weight and then maintain it. But reintroduce carbs to any significant degree and the weight comes right back on.
I think the problem is that it is easy to eat a lot of carbs from carbohydrates without really noticing it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Johann Strauss
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You could try. To go heavy on bacon and eggs, and meat in general. And reduce the intake of carbs. Exception made for beer with friends because life is for living it.
Couple the protein regime with exercise. You don’t have to replicate the SAS fitness program. A bit of running, starting with short distances and building up through time. 2 or 3 times a week do some weight training. Running can be done with others, there’s all over the world millions of groups of people that run together, all ages, all distances and most important all different paces.
I’m not going to lie to you. It’s difficult. When I started it was really difficult and I had terrible muscular pain in my legs.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I am slim and maintain this weight not by calorie counting or by exercise, but by eating a low carb, moderate protein and reasonably high fat diet. Lots of greens and some fruit. Calorie counting cannot work, because I should be double my size.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

That’s exactly what I do and I’m also slim. The only difference is that I do exercise, specifically bike 150-200 miles a week, but I do that because I enjoy riding with friends, not because of the exercise. And the truth is that after a long (hard) bike ride, I find myself very hungry, at least when the fridge is within very easy reach – so it’s not an effective way to lose weight although it may well be an effective way to maintain one’s weight.

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
2 years ago

I mean
yes and no. The examples provided in the article (replica meat in particular) are examples where technological solutions provide something basically universally agreed upon as good (delicious food, associated role of said food in communal activities) without the negative externalities. Where such breakthroughs exist, I’m all for them.

But it is all too easy to rest on solutions which create new problems. Maybe we can keep flying around the world at will and simply “patch up” the emissions with some new technology, but then we will need to make sure the resources for that new technology are available, don’t run low, deal with their side effects etc.

And technology always has side effects. Social media and smartphones allow you to keep up with distant friends, but they’re also destroying our attention spans, increasing anxiety and leading to entirely new and damaging social phenomena. I’m not convinced the solution is to look at a new technological fix rather than think deeply about what human society is and what it needs to thrive. Which, yes, is hard and most people won’t do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not what’s needed.

It seems very likely the answer to most our problems is neither Luddism nor techno-fetishism. But I don’t hear many people in mainstream culture seriously advocating stripping back our reliance on technology and there is a fair amount of attention lavished on the supposedly bright future being ushered in by Silicon Valley. So a healthy skepticism of the ability of technology to deliver seems a good thing to me, paired with acknowledging the many real good things technology has and can driver.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

It seems very likely the answer to most our problems is neither Luddism nor techno-fetishism.
Agreed. The author provides the example of making air travel carbon neutral so we can all enjoy easy travel without worrying too much about the environment. I question whether cheap air travel is such a good idea.
I had a colleague who was a hyper guy. On a three-day weekend he’d fly from the west coast of the US to Europe, ‘do’ the sights, and fly back in time for work at the end of three days. He did it courtesy of No Doze and other caffeine-filled products. I prefer the days when air travel was expensive and a foreign trip was an occasional adventure to be planned for and savored. Learn something about the country before leaving and spend meaningful time at the various sights of interest.
Same goes for business travel. Flying became so cheap people will organize a business meeting on almost any pretext. Employees fly in from around the country to waste time in ill-considered meetings.
I view technology as something to be used judiciously and which augments a more traditional lifestyle. Yeah, stupidly optimistic I know.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I completely agree. Technology changes us, and it’s not always or necessarily for the worse but it’s best to affirm you know what is being changed and you want that to change. The attitude in our modern western culture seems to be if it can be done, we’ll do it, whatever the consequences.

Claire Dunnage
Claire Dunnage
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I can’t see from your argument why cheap air travel may not be a good thing. You have a preferred way of travelling: more expensive, an occasional adventure etc. But they are just your preferences, not better per se

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire Dunnage

Fair point. Ultimately I’m making a value judgment and distinguishing between what’s technologically achievable and what’s good for us. Mass air travel has almost destroyed many tourist destinations flooded with visitors every summer (Venice is an example) and there is considerable environmental damage. For what? So people can get drunk, sit on a beach, and fly home?
Efficient (and arguably inhumane) farming practices give us cheap, high calorie food (such as the burgers mentioned in Tom Chivers’ article) and all its done is create an epidemic of obesity.
I argue for a simpler life where we value travel, good quality food and clothes and the like, and these things are expensive enough we must think carefully before buying them. Ultimately I think that will be better for us and for our environment and will leave a healthier planet for our descendants.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Do from what I can gather you’re in favour of travel, as long as it’s set at a level that’s prohibitive to many people? Am I safe in assuming this level will coincidentally sit just at the cost that means it’s still available to yourself, while discouraging those less well off?

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’m arguing for a balance between what’s possible and what’s good for us and our planet. My suggestion isn’t to entirely prevent most people from flying but to make it expensive enough they can’t fly on a whim. They have to save for a trip and, hopefully, plan for it and get the most out of it.
Would the higher price be one I can afford? I’m financially comfortable so the answer is probably yes. Is that my goal–to price other people out of the market and make travelling a better experience for me? No. For what it’s worth, I detest flying. I occasionally have to fly for business reasons but the last time I flew for pleasure was a European trip in 1999.
I realize what I’m suggesting will be unacceptable to people who value individual choice above all else. I’m just not sure we can afford that level of individualism anymore.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Call my cynical, but I’ve always found those that shout the loudest for an increase in airfares are those for whom it would be a minor inconvenience, rather than those for whom it would be the difference between going or not.
Business travel is one of the biggest contributors to emissions rather than a few working class boys going for a stag do in Prague, so perhaps limiting the number of flights a person can take a year for whatever reason would be a fairer option than simply pricing the poor out of flying?

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

so perhaps limiting the number of flights a person can take a year for whatever reason would be a fairer option than simply pricing the poor out of flying?
That’s a good suggestion.

Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago

Skimming the surface of human behaviour. Eating a burger gives you pleasure and satisfies hunger but I would argue happiness is more complex and rooted not in pleasure (simple biological functions) but in something higher, something less easily definable. Happiness might come from knowing your neighbour has got a great new job or that your team is top of the league table. Or that the cake you baked turned out beautifully or your new wallpaper looks great. Small things and big things. Human happiness is complex and individual. Shame to relate it to eating a burger.
While we continue to think that humans are driven merely by pleasure seeking, we will not progress in this debate.
And it seems that the food animals play a vital role in soil health through their grazing and manuring. Agricultural crops take from the soil rather than improve it. And who wants a countryside with no fields of cows, sheep and pigs? Because vegans always seem to gloss over this fact. There will be no food animals. They are not wild! So the vegan vision is presumably endless acres of crops and the odd factory pummeling the crops into fake meat. Lovely.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Deborah B

Happiness might come from knowing your neighbour has got a great new job

That wouldn’t make me happy. I hate the b45stard.

Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Hoho. I too have a neighbour like that. But I satisfy myself by sticking pins in his effigy. Happiness comes in many and varied forms!

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Great article Tom!

To amplify one point you made, I gave up smoking after 20 years with vaping and from there gave up vaping completely 4 years ago. It was easier than going cold turkey from cigarettes. I suspect if you lose 5 stone with Wegovy you might then be able to maintain it without the drug if you so choose.

Now we need someone to invent something that gives those scolds the thrill of lecturing us without our having to listen to them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

I agree with the general thrust of the article, even if some care for the unforeseen consequences of technical fixes is needed.
But. There are a minority (possible a significant minority) of people who fiercely desire Utopia and insist that everyone must behave in a manner appropriate to achieving that outcome. If it generates misery or deaths on the way to that Utopia, well, the ends justify the means (in their minds).
Fun things like burgers without animal suffering, vaping, losing weight without suffering are regarded by the pro Utopians as frivolous and undermining the drive towards Utopia, and are therefore unacceptable behaviour. There is a purity to their views about Utopia which is quite chilling.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yes, I remember the fury from anti-smoking campaigners that e-cigs enabled people to give up tobacco relatively pain-free.

There was also moaning about lab meat a few months back when there was a bit of a breakthrough on its development (not commercially viable yet, of course, but the path forward seemed somewhat clearer).

Activists are so often not actually the caring do-gooders they pretend to be. They’re really just misanthropes. They want us to eat bugs and live in pods.

Jack Streuth
Jack Streuth
2 years ago

So the idea is; for our weight, we rely on a pill; for our health, we rely on pills and vaccines; for our food we rely on labs and for our mood we do the same. It strikes me that pretty soon we will have lost all independence and we will be thoroughly dependent on pharma for our well-being.
At the same time, we want to save the planet but we are happy to divorce ourselves from nature and lose our place in it, the circle of life and all that.
A while back, I think Tom wrote a good piece about the unintended consequences of actions, yet he seems to ignore that phenomenon here, as if switching to lab grown food and popping pills for something as simple as eating better will have zero impact. In fact he does that a lot lately.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

What a good idea
 set Big Food and Big Pharma against each other and we can kick back and watch the war.
How can this work? At the moment Big Food and Big Pharma work so nicely together, both making trillions of dollars. BF creates problems and BP pretends to try to fix them, but in so doing creates more problems. There are players hooked into this industry like the diet industry which is worth mega bucks – I doubt they want anything to change. If there is a pill, be sure that BP will create one that a person has to take for life.
Governments have shown they have no appetite to take this on and this is a disgrace. The numbers are higher than Tom states. In the UK, 28% are obese and a further 36% are overweight. A whopping 64%. In the USA it is even higher – 69% are overweight or obese. Governments actually enable Big Food and Big Pharma – there is just so much lovely lolly to be made on the side and of course they don’t want to anger the electorates or huge industries.
While populations have been stuck inside we have been able to witness this awful dance and have had the time to think it through. We have seen a disease which particularly affects overweight people and those with co-morbidities often caused by being overweight. Has there been a move to strongly and consistently denounce being overweight? A move to aggressively tackle fast foods, the sugar industry and the like?
In South Africa I can currently watch a 3 minute self congratulatory sugar industry advertisement on TV, followed by a strong, lengthy denouncement and ban of a devil drug that could stop Covid in its tracks, but more importantly is one of the safest meds in history. This can be followed by an advertisement showing a large, happy, fat family eating delicious takeaway food laden with carbohydrates, sugar and toxic vegetable oils. This world is evil.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

The covid debacle has proved to me that the over all aim of governments and their lobbyists is to remove agency from the individual in relation to their health & well being. No diets, supplements or lifestyle changes could have had any impact on the possibility of dying from covid; only a vaccine can save us; even if we can still contract & transmit covid.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

Technology and science do not tell us what to do, they only tell us what might happen if we do certain things. But the science has to be correct, and climate science is not supported by physics or empirical evidence. So it isn’t about science it is about somebody having a view which they want to force on others.Tom Chivers prefers bad science to impose the Politics of Obedience on us.

timb1948
timb1948
2 years ago

I am happy for you to eat what you want, but I expect the same tolerance from you to allow me to eat what I want. History shows that people have got taller and stronger when they eat more meat and dairy, the Dutch after they drained the polders and consumed more meat and dairy, the Japanese after the American occupation introduced burgers and milk shakes. It may si,ilarly take decades for the effects of a plant based diet to show. Think Pandas, whose dietary change has rendered them both less energetic and lowered their reproduction rate.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

As always, the strength of “Unherd” is the multiple dissenting viewpoints. This week, in one corner, we have Tom Chivers, who it seems promoting a rather utilitarian view of life – the purpose of life here seems to extract the most pleasures consistent with others being able to do the same. And, if technology can help, great! It’s a rational viewpoint and one that is amenable to technocratic government (“balancing risks”, “balancing rights and responsibilities”, etc. etc.) But in the other corner, you have Mary Harrington, who believes that the purpose of life is a bit deeper… quasi-religious, even. Personally, I’m with Mary on this one… even if she is wrong. The idea that a meaningful life can be reduced to some optimization problem (even if it is a problem that can’t be solved on a classical computer) is a bit disheartening, really.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

Is Tom Chivers part of the great reset? Are you a WEF “influencer” Tom? I did a search. I don’t see any attachment but you are literally falling right in line with this crowd. The big boys are all in on it. It has been disappointing to them so far. Stock price hasn’t gone up in 5 years. I swear the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was a major holder but I don’t see them on the list anymore. They didn’t lose faith did they? The big 3 are all at the top though. 15 million shares clearly a “great reset” favorite company.
https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/BYND/holders?p=BYND
https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/bill-gates-wants-us-to-eat-100percent-synthetic-beef-he-has-a-point/ar-BB1dPQNH
OK… this is great stuff. Billy sold out right before they launched the plandmemic!
https://observer.com/2019/12/bill-gates-foundation-sold-beyond-meat-stock-third-quarter-before-market-crash/

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
2 years ago

Interesting definition of happiness.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
2 years ago

How could a science writer, who presumably knows something about science, be going on about carbon capture, and solar power? There’s no question that nuclear is the best solution to CO2.

Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
2 years ago

As I read this, I ate my vegetarian pasta. It was delicious but all I wanted was a burger, a ciggie and another glass of wine.
It’s naĂŻve to think that humans control their desires. Our core DNA impels us to pursue sex and protein.
Until our brains live as long as our bodies, the discussion is futile.
If you want to live forever, you’re a narcissistic or a Bezos. Oh, unintended oxymoron.
If you want to do right by the little children and the planet – eat meat, drink booze, smoke and take drugs, but not the ones prescribed by your no risk GP.
If I see another old Lycra clad git tyring to hold back time, I’m going to nudge him into the oncoming traffic.
Stop wasting resources. Die early and make room.

Colin Brewer
Colin Brewer
2 years ago

Suicide rates did rise after the war but only because they fell dramatically during the war (as is usual with wars) and then gradually returned to pre-war levels. They might have risen more slowly but after the NHS was introduced in 1948, the suicidally-inclined increasingly made use of the sleeping tablets and other potentially lethal drugs that the NHS provided. The Samaritans initially claimed credit for the fall in suicide in the 1960s but if that had been the case, they would have to explain why their existence and growth only deterred those who were planning suicide by coal gas. During the 1960s and 70s, suicide by other methods remained steady or, in the case of medication overdoses, increased. In the 1980s, unprecedentedly, while male suicides increased, female suicides did not rise in parallel as they normally did but actually fell significantly and have stayed that way. That coincided with out first female prime minister, though I think there was no causal relationship.

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

Thought Chivers was onto something with the vegan burgers, however, interest in serious weight loss may be better directed towards amazing trials of semaglutide recently published. Use of a tablet weekly among 2000 patients resulted in a mean body weight loss of 14.9% over 68 weeks ( Wilde JPH et al). Not so tasty maybe, but sounds terrific for getting the kilos off

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

Looking into the mission statement of Beyond Meat I note that it is trying to produce plant based products which are “indistinguishable” from meat products. Impossible Foods (also veggie products producer) have a similar mission statement with the aim being sustainability. So it appears that their market is not necessarily the vegetarians out there.  As a vegetarian for 45 years with lapses (God knows how I have tried to eat meat) of various durations during that time I just gravitated to vegetarianism originally and keep on gravitating back and am now vegan and most recently keto to boot. 
For me Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods do not have a product or moat. Perhaps they have the best tasters to get that formula with the pea protein just right but they do not have a new plant based product.  At least Quorn have a plant based product and a lesser mission statement which is to get people eating meat free meals which at least is not necessarily trying to replicate (I do however think that they should concentrate on fewer products – I have yet to find one I like).
There is animal red meat, chicken and fish and many non-vegetarians would perhaps choose chicken or fish because it is lighter and perhaps healthier. Perhaps there is also a phenomenon of eating one’s way down the evolutionary scale which can lead to vegetarianism as one route. 
Given this drift or gravitation which is my own experience of choosing vegetarian products and what suits me I consider the products of Beyond Meat (even the word meat in the company name! – to me as a vegetarian meat does not even exist and I just do not register it when walking around the supermarkets and I believe the company name must have been dreamt up by a meat eater or new vegetarian convert) and Impossible Foods become just a dalliance or temporary phase for anyone heading along the vegetarian path before they move to full vegetarian and eat purer vegetable foods direct or to get their savoury by just throw something together in a blender and then stick the resulting, hopefully tasty but definitely healthy, goo in the George Foreman to cook.   Even for meat eaters who might be forced towards plant based, perhaps increasingly in the future, the substitute products of BM, IP and others would not work as simpler vegetable foods would be preferred going direct to ingredients. I do not believe that Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods actually have a long term market or am certainly struggling to see it.  

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

“In the UK after the war, suicide rates went up. By the mid-Sixties, according to the national registry, they reached something like 14 per 100,000 men per year, and about 10 per 100,000 women1. But by 1971, they had dropped significantly, to about 10 for men and seven for women. What happened? Did we make progress in solving society’s underlying problems and make Britain a more tolerable place to live?”

That’s impossible, as only the young of today are fragile. Older people were invincible, or so I am told.

Brack Carmony
Brack Carmony
2 years ago

The question should not be about what method should people use to solve problems, instead about who we expect to solve them.
It’s easy to defend any solution when you also get to define the criteria for success. Fake beef may take less energy to produce, but for which of the thousands of different options for raising cattle is that true? Raising a couple dozen cattle on a few acres of pasture doesn’t take much beyond the land, a few fences, and human labor. You supplement their winter consumption with bales of hay. We are turning empty space and time into a valued resource, and turning a non human digestible material into human digestible material. We could make a similar argument about never growing avocados in California, insisting it is more efficient to grow them in different climates with more rainfall.
As external observers to any process it becomes simple for us to disregard any part that doesn’t support our argument. Especially if we are not paying the costs of the decision. So the question is always who chooses.
So long as it remains a personal choice to use a medication to try and help with weight loss, the option should be out there. But if we are saying that because this technology exists, we should prescribe it to people who do not want it, when they have not decided it’s the best option for them to try, then we hit dystopian.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago

I’m skeptical about the existence of a pill that would keep its effectiveness long-term for weight loss and not cause harmful side effects, but if there actually exists such a thing, give it to people. Stop the moralizing and character condemnation and just give it to them. I work in a medical clinic and see a constant parade of “human wreckage” lumbering and shuffling through the hallways, and those are the ones who can still walk at all. These people have crossed a line to a place where “diet and exercise” is ludicrous advice.
I am not overweight, and I maintain myself without the assistance of any medication, but I am tired of people who want to force everyone to do everything “the right way,” according to them. Why are we still going on about whether or not people should be “allowed” to eat burgers? If you want one, have one. If you want a vegan burger, have one. This should not be seen as an either/or problem, with one of these options not existing anymore.