This article was originally published in the Marin Independent Journal on January 18, 2021.

A calf chained to a veal crate in the winter. (Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals)

Is dairy farming cruel to cows? A recent essay by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times asks an uncomfortable question. Contrary to the “happy cow” caricatures depicted in dairy industry advertising, these social and nurturing animals endure systematized suffering on factory farms. In recent years, the public discourse has continued to reflect a growing awareness — and concern — regarding farm animal welfare issues.

More and more people are recognizing the harm done by factory farming. It’s no coincidence that Veganuary, a campaign that challenges people to go vegan for the month of January and beyond, is seeing record-breaking numbers of participants. Five hundred thousand people have registered their commitment to eating plant-based foods in 2021, a milestone that’s double the number who pledged to go meat-free in 2019.

But plant-based foods aren’t just for vegans; an ever-growing number of “flexitarians” (those who subscribe to semi-vegetarian diets centered on plant foods with the occasional inclusion of meat) are driving a booming market of meat and dairy alternatives. Vox reports that “Unilever — the world’s 19th largest food and beverage manufacturer — set a new annual global sales target of $1.2 billion from plant-based meat and dairy within the next five to seven years, about five times what it forecasts it will make from plant-based sales in 2020.”

Further, “these moves have largely been made in response to growing consumer demand. The last few years have seen the new wave of meatless meat achieve something of mainstream status, and the pandemic has only added to the momentum. Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus at meatpacking facilities and supply chain troubles at grocery stores early in the pandemic seemed to contribute to greater demand for meatless meat.”

COVID-19 has also cast a light on poor working conditions in the meat processing industry. There have been several documented coronavirus outbreaks among meat factory employees, most famously at Tyson Foods, where seven plant managers were fired over a betting ring on how many workers would contract the virus.

While plant-based options are booming (for example, Panera Bread announced that it plans to make half of its menu items vegetarian or vegan by 2021), there’s another interesting trend to watch: lab-grown meat made from cultured cells. This past December, Singapore approved Eat Just’s lab-grown chicken meat for sale, marking the world’s first regulatory approval for so-called clean meat that does not come from slaughtered animals.

Cultured meat poses an interesting philosophical question. Grown from animal cells, it’s decidedly not plant-based — nor, strictly speaking, vegan. The result is a product that looks, cooks and tastes exactly like animal meat because, biologically, it is animal meat. However, the key difference is that no animals need to be killed in order to make it.

Specifically, Eat Just’s chicken nuggets were grown from a single feather shed by a chicken named Ian. As the Just team feasted on real chicken nuggets, Ian wandered about, alive and well (and likely unaware of his key role in helping his fellow chickens).

Hopefully, cultured meat will bring us closer to a world where no animals are harmed for a burger or piece of bacon. Until then, it’s not too late to try vegan this January. Go to for recipes and inspiration.