My two cents on the problems with radical veganism and scientific research
(if anyone is interested, long explanation under Read More)
Let’s start with something most people, omnivore or vegan, can actually agree with. It is a fact that humans in the majority of economically developed countries consume too much, not just meat and dairy, but also carbohydrates, which eventually leads to:
a) an overproduction of food in certain parts of the world
b) destruction of ecological niches all over the world
However, this is where it starts getting more complicated, and where I start having problems with the whole concept of “radical veganism”.
First the problem of presenting veganism as being the healthiest diet choice.
Being a scientist it kind of grinds my gears when “research” and “studies” are used to “confirm a vegan diet as being the best choice for a healthy lifestyle”. Such claims and sources are rarely if at all backed up by actual citations and references.
I have searched through various article databases, and could not find one single article that could support that hypothesis. On the other hand, there are quite a few articles that support diets that are mostly vegetarian with a lower rate of meat consumption, but even those are predominantly tested on 1st world country populations, meaning the results could be biased.
Image: PubMed is a database of article abstracts, and it mostly focuses on biomedical articles. In case anyone wants to try an article search themselves.
My second problem is more closely related to my work and lifestyle, and that is the idea that ALL animals held in captivity should be set free to roam the environment (I am guessing pets don’t count). I will not even go into the whole problematics of setting farm animal populations consisting of a few billion individuals free at once in an ecosystem.
What I want to address is what this means to science, and that is “setting free” all model organisms, specifically animal models, from labs. Let’s take a step back into the past and try to remember how animals, and in the last couple of decades especially laboratory animals and research on them, has changed our perspective on biology and medicine. What most people fail to realize is that not all research done on these organisms is “for curing diseases”:
(see above wikipedia article on list of various organisms used for various research)
Now, I want you to try and look at it from the most broad perspective you can, and ask yourself: what would removing laboratory organisms/animals mean for scientific research and science?
Without much exaggeration, it would mean returning to the dark ages.
Let’s take one moment and think about the actual animals, and for simplicity talk about mice and rat since most people first associate them with laboratory animals. Most of them have been bred in sterile laboratory conditions for decades, meaning for hundreds or even thousands of generations this has been their ecosystem. What also happened during this period is that most breeds became homozygous for various recessive gene alleles, making them prone to disease.
Image: White laboratory mice are the most common example of these recessive alleles since they lack pigment in their fur/eyes/skin. Note: there are also a lot of brown/black laboratory mice breeds, and are often used together with the white breeds to form chimeras and transgenic mice used later in various types of research, but those breeds are often recessive for other genes.
So you have these mice and rats that have lived their entire lives in completely sterile environments with a constant source of food and water. Do you have any idea how long would these animals last in the outside world? The answer is not very much. They are not accustomed to predation, and would either die from a predator (bird, cat, dog…) in the first couple of hours, die from starvation or dehydration, or contract a disease and then die slowly for a couple of days. What would happen then is that you would end up with piles of diseased corpses (disease breeding grounds, need I say more?). Not the best solution for these laboratory animals, and not the best solution for human populations and the ecosystem.
And now to get back to the idea of what would suddenly losing these model organisms mean for scientific research.
What exactly do you plan on using as substitutes? Cell cultures? Organ cultures?
You do realize that cell cultures regardless of the organism and cell type are grown on FETAL, NEONATAL or ADULT BOVINE SERUM, RIGHT?
Image: Bovine serum is still one of the most used cell culture nutrients/mediums. It is a cocktail of various proteins and growth factors that facilitate cell growth and proliferation.
While there are substitutes, cells cultures are not as successful in both growth and proliferation on those media as they are on bovine serum. However fear not because alternatives for this particular part of scientific research are being produced. Problem solved, right?
Well, no. Not by a long shot. You still don’t know if what you see in a cell culture is the result of cells reacting to specific agents and gene modifications, or if it is in fact just a reaction to culture environments. For example, will a cell-culture-grown neuron cell behave differently than if said neuron cell was located in a certain part of the brain. This can only be seen and tested in a fully grown organism. In scientific research, especially when characterizing genes, you need to see if changes in certain genes or pathways (usually obtained by genetic modifications or mutations) have any effect on the actual organism: its behaviour, its morphology or its physiology.
Note: the same argument is valid when testing new compounds and drugs, but I guess everyone has already heard and knows about that. Same principle, controlled homozygous populations of model organisms genetically modified for a certain disease, test to see if the disease is cured or if the cons outweigh the pros. I won’t even go into the whole list of medicine containing animal derived macromolecules (such as lactose), or even medicine consisting primarily of animal macromolecules. I do not work in a pharmaceutical or biotechnological field so I don’t know much about these.
Speaking of biotechnology, what about animals such as rabbits, goats and horses used to produce antibodies? You could argue against those too. That would also mean a loss of antibodies for serums (treating patients who have been bitten or stung by animals with protein rich venoms, such as black widow spiders), or disease diagnosing assays, used to test for the presence of various diseases in patients. Some HIV tests are based on antibody detection, and last time I checked a vegan diet/lifestyle will not protect you from getting diseases such as HIV.
Image: monoclonal antibody production. While in later stages cells can be grown in vitro to produce antibodies, the antigen is usually administered to the actual organism.
Take home message:
by removing animals from scientific research, you are basically condemning both science and laboratory animals to a slow and painful death
… oh, and also all the sick people that could benefit from research on those model organisms (and before anyone pulls out the “cancer” card, last time I checked not all cancers were caused by “consuming animal products”, and not all diseases tested on animal models were cancer)
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