The vast majority people in Western society accept that dogs can feel pain, and can suffer in other ways, such as from prolonged confinement in a small cage. It is considered monstrous and in fact in many countries is illegal to kick a dog repeatedly in the face or to confine a dog to a small cage for its entire life.
The same treatment, however, is regularly visited upon cows and pigs in industrial farms. There is just as much evidence as for dogs that cows and pigs can feel pain and can suffer in other ways. The distinction isn’t based on science, it’s culturally contingent. Some cultures slaughter dogs for food with indifference, some cultures protect cows with the same love and fierceness that we in the West protect dogs.
Some people can’t imagine not eating meat, dairy, and eggs and so work backwards from that conclusion that causing pain and suffering to farm animals is morally acceptable. Some people think it’s morally unacceptable to cause pain and suffering to animals, but — like smokers who are afraid cigarettes are killing them and yet struggle to quit smoking — they’re addicted to animal products. Some despair that their personal consumer choices won’t have an impact, so there’s no point going through the sacrifice. Artificial animal products disrupt the psychological equilibrium of all these people.
The biotech/food innovation startup Hampton Creek developed a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo by rapidly sequencing the genomes of thousands of plant species and finding plants that could replicate the taste and texture of normal mayonnaise more than any previous vegan alternative. Just Mayo was an instant hit. For example, right away it became the best-selling brand of mayonnaise at Whole Foods. Admittedly Whole Foods already caters to vegans more than any other grocery chain, so that was a bit of an easy win, but there is pent up demand for this stuff.
Eating vegan is hard, and making it a lot easier — effortless, even — to eat vegan means more people will eat vegan. You can’t just look at people’s consumption behaviour to make conclusions about what people want. The fact that so many people eat McDonald’s and Taco Bell doesn’t tell you that all those people are indifferent about health and nutrition. If you came onto the market with cheeseburgers, fries, tacos, and nachos that tasted and felt the same as ever, but had the caloric and nutritional content of steamed broccoli, McDonald’s and Taco Bell would go out of business over night.
People’s morality is rarely hard and fast. Moral concerns, even deeply felt ones, hit a limit where they become too demanding and amoral selfishness kicks in. It is a non-starter for many people to talk about giving up meat, dairy, and eggs for the sake of animals, but it is a different thing altogether to offer an indistinguishable (and in fact identical) product that is cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly, and healthier that also helps prevent the pain and suffering of billions of animals. People’s moral concerns change as their ability to act on those concerns change.
All that just addresses the cruelty aspect of animal agriculture. There’s also the environmental aspect. Animal agriculture is right up there with transportation and power generation as one of the planet’s primary sources of greenhouse gases. We should therefore consider artificial animal products as a necessary technological innovation to stop climate change on par with mass market electric cars and solar power cheaper than power generated from coal and natural gas.