In the near future Vat grown 'cruelty free' meat has become cheaper and healthier then eating animals. Society is moving to exclusively growing our meat, no one wants to pay the high costs of 'live' meat.

What will society do with the huge quantities of livestock 'left over' as we transition to the vat grown meats? We could slaughter and eat the last of the livestock and simply not raise new ones, but this would effectively mean the extermination of numerous species. We can't let them loose in the wild either, as they no longer are capable of fending for themselves without human intervention.

I imagine a few will still be raised to be slaughtered and eaten by rich elitists folks who are willing to pay much higher prices just to be able to say they are eating the 'real thing'. I suspect a few may be kept around in zoos or the equivalent, so future children can look in amazement at the things we use to kill and eat.

However, what will happen to the vast majority of remaining livestock? I'm interested in any controversial arguments that may occur during the transition to exclusively eating vat-grown meat, what environmentalists, animal rights activists, and PETA may argue for the well being of the livestock, in addition to what the industries and average person will look to do.

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    $\begingroup$ What did we do with chariots when automobiles became uniquitous? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that there are other uses for the carcass of an animal that was slaughtered for food. Leather, gelatin, glues, and other binders. Even drywall has an animal component $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ I think you might not realize just how fast livestock are raised and consumed. Farmed pigs, the longest-lived animals before they're turned into hot dogs, only live around 5 years on average. If your transition from "some vat meat" to "mostly vat meat" to "all vat meat" took even just 10 years, all the livestock would have been consumed. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ Animals domesticated for food are generally incapable of long term survival in the wild. The domestication process involves selection for features that are liabilities in an uncontrolled wild setting. For example, some breeds of meat stock are incapable of reproduction without artificial aid (the domesticated turkey and some breeds of chicken for example). Others are too docile and/or have had the native intelligence bred out of them. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan : there weren't over 20 billion chariots around when automobiles were introduced, and they also weren't alive. You could still build a chariot today if you wanted to, but you couldn't restore an extinct species. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 10:01

15 Answers 15


Economics, culture, religion, government policy, and other factors will dictate what happens, likely in a dynamic equilibrium amongst all possible outcomes. All of your outcomes and many more are all likely to happen. The real question is only for how long and to what extent the transition occurs.

Where a market for live animals exists, the animals will be purchased:

  • Low margin producers will sell stock to higher margin producers. Mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, and other market mechanics will drive out the lowest performers. Some producers will sell off lower margin species to purchase higher margin species.
  • Survivalists will buy breeding stock since "natural farming will survive the end of civilization".
  • Zoos will buy breeding stock to ensure survival of the species and individual breeds.
  • Animal rights groups, petting farms, and other animal reserves will buy breeding stock.
  • Philanthropists will buy individual animals to live out their natural lives on hobby farms.
  • Wealthy individuals will buy individual animals to flaunt their wealth, as speculative investments, or any number of financially dubious purposes.

Where a market exists for live meat, it will continue to be sold.

  • Prices will reflect supply and demand.
  • Niche producers will continue as long as they can sustain their margins.
  • Religious laws and cultural norms may push for or away from live meat consumption.
  • Market inequalities will allow for competition. Logistics, marketing, culture, or other factors will influence perceptions.
  • Socialist governments will subsidize the live meat industry to slow the transition to vat meat in order to preserve and ease the transition of traditional live meat producers.
  • Pet food

Herds will be culled:

  • As prices are depressed, capital will move to higher margin investments. Producers will simply not breed additional generations of animals.
  • Some producers will transition to higher margin species
  • Some producers will transition to vat meat production

Many animals will die, but some may live. If producers fail to transition, there will be no money left to purchase feed or other supplies necessary to run a farm.

  • Some producers will sell off what they have, possibly at a discount, possibly at a loss.
  • Some producers will euthanize the animals to minimize their loses.
  • Some producers will not give up even after every dime is sunk into the unsustainable business. When they have no money for feed they will hold on desperately waiting for an improvement. The animals will die of starvation, or be seized and/or euthanized by animal protection groups.
  • Some producers will give up, and simply let the animals go free. Most of them presumably get captured or die of natural or unnatural causes. For a few "nature finds a way" and they may get lucky enough to sustain a feral population that endures and evolves.
  • $\begingroup$ While everyone gave good answers, they mostly covered the ground I already new (perhaps I didn't make it clear enough that I had done the basic extrapulation and was looking for more detailed analysis). As such I'm picking this as my selected answer for it covering a bit more options then the obvious economic ones I already knew :) $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately my answer also tended towards economics, but such is the modern world of food from food factories. The intention was to go much further though... to paraphrase Murphy's law "if something can happen, it will happen"; so in a complex system in dynamic equilibrium every possible outcome will be expressed to some extent. Particularly the religious and political factors are interesting. Will Christian emigrants take breeding fish to the stars just to avoid eating vat meat on Fridays? Will Jews consider vat meat kosher? Will politicians subsidize big-meat to protect abattoir jobs? $\endgroup$
    – Doug
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 23:21

There wouldn't be a huge stock left over as we transition unless the transition was extraordinarily fast. Instead, the transition would gradually replace livestock.

In the beginning, carniculture (vat-grown meat) would be more expensive than livestock. They would argue that vegetarians who wouldn't eat meat because it involved killing animals could eat it. Of course, vegetarians who have different reasons may still avoid carniculture. It will be the luxury item.

Over time, they would make carniculture cheaper. So it would displace some existing livestock raising. But that in turn would make livestock less valuable (as there is now a surplus). Farmers would raise less livestock, as it would be less profitable. The two would balance for some period of time, as the herds decreased in size and carniculture became cheaper.

Eventually livestock-based meat would become the luxury item. People would pay more for it, as it would be rare.

If carniculture takes over because of cost, then they would simply harvest the livestock. Because the current livestock is free at that moment. It is cheaper to slaughter it and sell the meat than to maintain it. They would simply stop exposing the cows to bulls and making more.

If you want there to be drama around it, you need carniculture to be adopted for some reason other than cost. Because cost will balance naturally. They'll reduce the size of the herds as they go.

Health might work. The carniculture meat might be high in good fats like Omega-3 (like free-range beef) while the factory raised meat is high in saturated fats. So the carniculture product is immediately higher quality. Meanwhile, it would be controversial to feed low quality, cheap meat to the poor.

Or you could start with PETA/vegetarians arguing that livestock is inhumane and promoting a switch to carniculture while it is still more expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me (slightly) of the Trend away from furs. Synthetic furs became cheap enough for mass production and replaced natural from a purely economic standpoint, coupled with animal rights movements and shaming. REal furs have become a very high end luxury item. Synthetic leathers seem to be following a similar trend. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ "it would be controversial to feed low quality, cheap meat to the poor." We already do that, and there's no (meaningful, since someone always whines about something) controversy. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ If you want a real-world example, look at the transition from horse-drawn vehicles to motor-powered vehicles. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI I'd look into that a little more if I were you, the UK has a real problem with REAL fur being passed off as faux as there is more demand for it and it is cheaper to produce. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed - it's not going to change overnight. Take horses vs cars as an example; at first cars were more expensive but considered superior so people started using them, eventually they also became more affordable too. There wasn't a mass surplus of horses though - as they became less useful people just bred them less, so the number reduced in line with the demand. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 0:28

The breeding of livestock is under human control. So with the demand for conventional meat declining, we would just stop breeding them.

Cattle, pigs or chickens do not mate uncontrollably. Farmers invest a lot of work to make sure they only mate when the farmers want them to and with the partner they want them to. Common methods to achieve this are gender segregation and artificial insemination. This gives the human farmers control over the reproduction of their lifestock.

Also, the life expectancy of the average farm animal is short. Chicken live for a few weeks, pigs for a few months for cattle for just one and a half year until they get slaughtered.

So unless the transition to artificial meat is very fast (less than a year) or the factory farmers are completely ignorant to this economical development, they will downsize their inventory with the declining demand. They will slaughter and sell their last animals the day they go out of business.

If they do forget to read the news end up with an inventory of unsellable inventory, they would not just let them free. They would be liable for all the damage those now free-roaming badly socialized animals would cause to their neighbors. So they will likely end up doing what farmers usually do when they can't sell their lifestock for some reason. They would just kill off any unsellable animals and dispose of the bodies.

Regarding the ecological impact of removing these species from the ecosystem: Remember that domesticated animals are no longer natural animals. We selectively bred for millenia to fulfill our requirements. They no longer participate in any ecosystem outside of the farm that breads them. They likely would not be able to survive in the wild anymore. Many are not even the same species anymore as their wild ancestors. A few migth be kept in zoos as a rarity.

  • $\begingroup$ Cows and probably goats would likely survive quite well without humans - here in the western US there are a lot of open-range cattle that are only rounded up in the fall. Also I understand that feral pigs are common in the southeast... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ Don't farm animals participate in larger ecosystems by their food intake, manure usage and breathing? The fact that farms are human controlled does not mean they are vacuum-separated from the rest of the environment. Also consider the crop growing for farm animals, etc $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ To add to your last sentence: We already keep old breeds that where "phased out" in zoos and I am sure we will keep doing that. I have been to arche-warder.de/english myself. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ Meat chickens die fast. Egg chickens are productive for a few years. Just sayin'. Most domesticated animals are useless except for the task for which they are domesticated. They would become 'extinct, except they aren't even a real species. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Open-range cattle aren't 'surviving w/o humans'. Human ranchers put in considerable effort to keep those ranges largely free of predators. $\endgroup$
    – Jerry B
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 10:15

I suspect the same would happen to livestock as would happen with any product which has grown obsolete in the marketplace. The price would drop due to the demand dropping, and ranchers across the world would attempt to sell the livestock to the slaughterhouses at cheaper rates to maintain profit.

At the same time, breeding of livestock would abruptly stop and the calves born today would be the last newborn cows and pigs born for the slaughter. I would argue that not just elitists but a good percentage of people would continue to buy meat at least at first, so it would be a slow decline, not a sudden drop.

Ranchers would likely replace cows and pigs for consumption for cows and goats for milking, as it would be the most natural transition. Consequently the quantity of milk would skyrocket and the price of milk would drop drastically as well.

With time, existing livestock would eventually die out naturally not to be replaced or breed, and milk and meat would once again balance out with demand. Some ranchers may humanely kill the livestock once the food runs out in order to prevent overhead costs, while others still would continue to feed them until their natural deaths despite the lack of profit involved.

PETA would most likely offer a free range place for cows or pigs to live on, though PETA would not likely provide the means to transport the livestock and very few ranchers would put forth the funds to transport them there.

PETA would still continue to seek better conditions for animals raised for the purpose of being milked.

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    $\begingroup$ If you are a dairy farmer, virtually all female calves go to milk production eventually. With the availability of sexed semen, farmers are able to reduce the percentage of bulls born. Production matches demand in either case. Different breeds are normally selected for milk and meat cows, though milk cows are slaughtered for meat too once they have reached the end of profitable milk production. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ PETA might say they'd do that, or run a small facility for the publicity, but in practice they kill every animal given to them. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Milk costs would not decrease in Canada, they are fixed by the government :( $\endgroup$
    – GreySage
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @GreySage I don't know how reasonable it would be to expect it to remain so with a significant and permanent drop. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ PETA does not and would not make land available. They employ kill shelters for any animal left in their care. $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 17:11

As several others have noted, it is unlikely that such a transition would happen overnight. There'd be plenty of time to work down the size of the herds.

I'd add that many animals are kept for reasons other than meat. Cows give milk, sheep give wool, etc. Skins of many animals are used for leather. Etc. Maybe these uses would decline also, maybe not.

But suppose human use of, say, cows did eventually end completely -- if we not only had vat-grown meat but also some sort of synthetic milk, if people abandoned leather for canvas or plastic, etc. Some number of cows would be kept in zoos. You'd probably have a few people who kept them as pets, just as people keep other exotic animals as pets.

And I'd expect that there would be some movement of people trying to figure out how to transition cows to living in the wild, through breeding, training, genetic manipulation, or whatever. It wouldn't have to be a great political movement with millions of people. I'd expect more like dozens of people. Just like there are people today seeking to preserve endangered species one way or another. If nothing else, there would surely be SOME number of conservationists buying land for cow pastures to preserve this creature that has now become an endangered species.

  • $\begingroup$ Ted Turner has bought large amounts of land in the American High Plains, in order to restore prairies and buffalo herds. Perhaps someone might try to convince him (or his successors) to set aside some of that land for a cattle preserve. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 3:21

Your question implies that -- even though "Society is moving" to exclusively growing our meat" -- the herds will remain the same size over time.

That's not true. As demand decreases, so will the sizes of the herds: ranchers will, as you said, "simply not raise new ones", and slowly get out of the business.

Also, your question is very "First World". Lots of poor people all over the world raise pigs because they're cheap, eating scraps.


Seeing how transition would not happen in a moment but rather over decades, the problem would kind of solve it self by simply diminishing the amount of meat we consume from actual livestock and trend more towards vat-grown meat. Slowly, steadily, vat-grown meat production ramps up and becomes more profitable and sustainable (and as people start to trust it more), however real meat will never stop being produced. It is just like we have artificial sweeteners and actual sugar. We have GMO foods and non-GMO foods. There is market for everything.

Lets draw a parallel with our own world and how it is dealing with transitioning from fossil fuel to sustainable green energy. It is not happening over night - fossil fuel is still used very much but over time as more green-energy power plants are created less people will have a need for fossil fuels.

In your scenario people would also slowly start to transition and as there are less customers for actual meat it would be produced less as farms start to fail due to not being profitable. Some farms would still function as high-end brands that deliver 'organic meat' if that thing is allowed in the world for those that prefer it to vat-grown stuff.

But overall, decades in after vat-grown meat appears on the market it will simply push out the organic meat as farms go out of business or switch their factories to produce vat-grown instead of actual meat. Eventually an equilibrium will be reached on the market.

Animals that were grown in those farms would not go extinct - cows, sheep, goat etc. still live in nature even though we grow them for consumption ourselves.

Their numbers would probably dwindle but i doubt they would go extinct.

Plus, animals are grown (and/or slaughtered) for reasons other than meat - production of milk (and from that other dairy products), skins, fertilizer, pets...

As for controversy there will always be a camp of people that will prefer natural meat and will campaign against vat-grown stuff for the same reason people protest GMO foods today. There will be people that will protest meat eaters, just like vegans do today. There will be those that will complain about long-term health effects that we may not know. People will probably argue that vat-meat factories pollute the world more than natural farms and waste more energy. Naturally you will have politicians claiming that the industry is bad because it is taking away jobs from farmers, veterinarians, cattle growers and medicine makers that ensure cattle remains health.

Just look at any industry that has pushed some other older technology out of the market and see the arguments that people used.


A long transition.

At first, vat grown meat will only be fit for substituting for mince and other highly processed products, so you will see, first, premium priced burgers and sausages with 'no-animal-meat' content, then more mass-market products if and when the price of vat-grown meat drops below that of animal meat.

This will take years. In economic terms, it will drop the price of animal meat, forcing some farmers to switch products and so reducing the livestock herd. The turnover time for battle is about 18 months, so the herd size can change very quickly in response to market demand. Chicken and port would be faster.

As the technology improves, we will get things like chicken breast and diced meat - taking more market share from animals and again reducing the global herd.

Finally - probably several decades hence - we will be able to replicate really hard cuts like fillet steak and on-the-bone joints; once these can be produced more cheaply than animal meat, mass animal farming will fade away.

Livestock farming may persist for a long timne, though, in some forms -

Artisan, premium forms of meat such as Wagyu may well be produced for a long time, and hill farming for sheep is one of the few practical uses for uplands, maintaining a distinctive landscape.

So - a gradual replacement followed by a long tail of specialist breeds, with meat-from-animals eventually banned in a century or so.


Two scenarios:

1) People change over time - as meat eaters change their minds or die, the demand decreases.

2) People are afflicted by a super plague that makes meat from a sentient being 100% fatal to ingest at all.


1) Farmers just stop buying new heads of cattle (or buy less) and let the herd size thin over time.

2) Farmers abandon their animals to the elements. They currently raise their animals out of desire for profit, they will abandon them out of desire to reduce costs as well. Not all farmers, but most. (After all, 99% of meat eaten today is raised on factory farms, where animal welfare is respected only as far as legally required). Some charities and rescues make efforts to re-home abandoned animals, but the majority of all cattle are left to die in their pens.

Keep in mind that there are secondary uses for animal by-products, that may become the primary product as meat demand falls - leather, etc. Also keep in mind that while we might have lab meat soon, we will not have lab dairy soon. Growing a muscle cell in a petri dish is a whole different animal from growing a complete lactating udder.


I'll give you the dystopian answer, since nobody else has.

As humanity becomes increasingly detached from natural processes, the cultural value of animals will decrease, and as populations increase, the economic incentive to eliminate competition for human living space will increase.

If viable alternatives to the products of animal husbandry become cheaper and more available than animal products, within a dozen generations breeding populations of non-human animals larger than mice will cease to exist.

Virtual reality will supply people with sanitized, bowlderized nature so there will no longer be any desire to keep the real thing around.

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    $\begingroup$ An interesting comment, but not an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 16:52

Having raised black angus beef cattle myself, the effects would be devastating to me and other farmers. Small herd farming is, in my experience, already a quite unprofitable job. But an "extinction" of this profession altogether would be a situation I would not like to be caught in the middle of.

Though cattle would continue to be raised in continually thinning numbers on big ranches, this leaves small herd farmers such as myself out of luck, out of a job, and in possession of equipment that I no longer have any use for. Not to mention the land I now have to pay taxes on that I have no choice but to sell. The equipment I used to use for raising cattle would no longer be needed, but would also be unsellable because other farmers would most likely not need it either.

Though I would most likely transition to a different animal that there is still a need for, this change would certainly be a hiccup in my career.

This situation is very similar to "The man in the white suit" so I think it would be a good idea for you to watch that.

But as for the animals, there is little more you can do than to stop breeding them and sell off a few at a time till you can make a transition to a more profitable industry.

Although I have seen some work by Allan Savory that introduces the truly fascinating idea of using herds of livestock to re-green the world's deserts by free ranging them. This would benefit the planet and give poor countries that may not have the logistics to import this "vat meat" the means necessary to thrive until their industry can take full advantage of the new meat.

(Mr. Savory's Ted Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI)


Slow transition. No technological change happens overnight in the real world, since the producers of vat-meat need to set up shop and ramp up production.

Think of the horse as an example. Prior to the wide-spread adoption of the steam engine, the horse, and other animals in comparable roles such as oxes, mules, etc., was the only source of power in agriculture. Every farm had its horse(s) to pull wagons, plough the fields, etc. With steam engines some tasks were taken over by machines, such as ploughing, sorry for the German-only reference. After WW2 with the advent of tractors, the horse was swiftly replaced in farming.

However, we (the societies that have replaced the horse as working animal) still breed horses.

So, while the overall livestock will decrease in numbers, people might transition to other uses:

  • Beef grown in vats does not do away the need for cattle in dairy production
  • Non-meat products: leather, wool, etc.
  • Recreation, hobby
  • Tending to the landscape: herds of sheep can be used to keep otherwise impassable tracts of grassland from turning into wilderness

Keep them around in mega-habitats and watch them evolve. It'd be sort of like the fighting bulls for tauromachy, but without the bloodsport.


If artificial meat replaces animal meat, demand for the latter will drop and so will prices. Those who raise animals for meat will seek greener pastures, so to speak. Eventually the artificial insemination that keeps these strains of animals will stop.

And when it becomes too unprofitable to even keep these animals, they'll be sold off. And, no, farmers aren't just going to open the gates and let them wander out on to the highway.


Very near future. Here's a Wired article claiming that lab grown meat is just around the corner because it will be less expensive than farm raised meat. If that's the case - and it may well be soon enough, raising livestock is expensive - then there's going to be a pretty quick transition and yeah, the livestock populations are going to be completely wiped out. It'll be like horses after cars.

I have wondered at the ethics of annihilating literally billions of animals for the sake of not having to kill them later... I don't think people will dwell on it too long. Taking the slaughter out of the equation and cheaper meat will make it easy math for most people, even if cattle (beef and dairy, apparently lab-milk is even easier to make than lab-meat) become and endangered species as a result.

Transition won't be overnight, but barring major regulatory or health hurdles, if the meat is cheaper it's going to be fast. Maybe livestock will be added to zoos, allowed to roam free in open areas out West (like the horses), or raised in small quantities as a luxury item though you can expect the cost of "real" meat to skyrocket. In the event of regulation or poor quality lab-meat transition will be slower, but I'd expect to end up in the same place pretty quickly as the lawyers resolve the regulatory issues and quality will improve over time.


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