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Cultured Meat Is An Alternative, Not A Solution

The idea of cultured meat (also known as ‘in vitro’ meat) has been played with for several years, as scientists have attempted to produce meat from cell cultures. Over the past week, this topic created headlines once again thanks to reports that ‘cultured’ sausage and hamburgers are on the way within the next six to twelve months. That is not to say they will be commercially available, but rather that they will serve as tangible proof of this technology’s capabilities.

In many circles, the prospect of cultured meat becoming mainstream (current projection: ten to fifteen years from now) and commercially successful is seen as a panacea. There is no doubt that our production and consumption of meat is highly disturbing on many levels:

I point all that out to make it clear that I am by no means casting off the search for cruelty-free “real” meat as a waste of time. I do, however, worry that viewing this as a “solution” to our food system’s troubles — and nation’s worsening health — is premature and overlooks other agents for change.

There Need To Be Other Motivators

The main goal behind cultured meats is to have omnivores make the switch from real meat products. As Josh Balk, director of corporate policy and supply chain strategy at the United States Humane Society told me in a recent phone conversation, “it will allow people to eat meat and enjoy the taste and texture [that can not be matched with current meat substitutes] while not having the adverse animal, environmental, and human effects; it also provides a unique opportunity to help millions animals who otherwise would suffer on factory farms.”

Alas, there is currently no data on public perception or possible acceptance of cultured meats, but Balk mentioned that currently taking place in the Netherlands thanks to government funding.  How Americans will react to cultured meat is still a huge question mark.

Perhaps I’m seeing the petri dish half empty here, but, considering that cultured meat is “made for omnivores” I don’t see how it can intrinsically cause a massive collective shift. In order for omnivores to seek out cultured meat in the first place, there needs to be an incentive. Cost could certainly be one. And, so, as with many other issues surrounding food and nutrition, we come back to crop subsidies. Take away corn, wheat, and soy subsidies and the artificially low price of conventionally raised meat will undoubtedly increase.

Anyone currently concerned with animal welfare or environmental issues in relation to meat production and consumption would make the switch regardless of whether or not science can make a juicy steak in a laboratory.  I doubt millions of people who morally oppose the consumption of commercial meat are holding out for more realistic ‘faux dogs’ to dramatically reduce or eliminate their meat consumption.

Never Underestimate the Power of Policy and Law

While proponents also point to cultured meat as something that can potentially save millions of animals from lives of abuse, I wonder how realistic this assessment is, as it assumes cultured meat will be a) received positively and b) that people who are currently eating “real meat” will instead consume a large part, if not all, of their meat consumption from cultures.

I argue that a better way to fight our current meat production system’s cruel treatment of animals, the environment, and human beings is through policy and law. While we can not expect the killing of animals for human consumption to become illegal, there is certainly room for improvements as far as the conditions animals live in and what is allowed in their feeds (like those 24 million pounds of antibiotics fed to livestock each year!).  Even once cultured meat goes mainstream and commercial, controlled animal feeding operations (CAFOs) will still exist.

Let’s Not Forget Health

If I take three steps back and look at the “really big picture”, there is a part of me that views in-vitro meat as counter-intuitive to plant-based eating. As regular Small Bites readers know, I advocate a whole-foods, plant-centric way of eating for health ( I purposefully use ‘plant-centric’ to accomodate flexitarians, who I also refer to as ‘occasional’ or ‘low-meat’ omnivores).

Josh Balk did point out that proponents and creators of in-vitro meat are not saying “have the standard American diet, but instead of real meat, have our meat instead.” That’s great. However, if the idea is for omnivores to “make the switch”, isn’t it likely consumption rates would stay the same? If the selling point is “now you can eat meat without harming animals or the environment,” what would make someone seek out a dish made from beans, whole grains, and vegetables instead?

As it stands, the average American eats well over 200 pounds a year of chicken, turkey, veal, lamb, beef, and pork a year. Seeing as how the average American only consumes half of the daily recommended intake of fiber (missing from meat) and that 70 percent of adults in the US do not consume enough magnesium (found in plant-based foods), I feel that the stronger push needs to be towards a whole-food, plant-based diet.

The prospect of cultured meat is intriguing, and there may very well be good applications for it.  While I do not doubt it could be a viable food option for some people, I worry that the unbridled enthusiasm about it from different camps loses sight of the power and importance of sound policies and a push towards a whole-food, plant-centric way of eating.

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6 Comments

  1. Mitzi said on September 10th, 2011

    I culture cancer cells in a lab, and to say that there are no adverse environmental effects to tissue culture vs. farming is astonishing. The energy we use for freezers, refrigerators, incubators, culture hoods, ventilation systems, etc. is massive. If our power goes down, and the back-up systems fail, we need generators brought in on 18-wheelers. We don’t burn the rain forest, but we do use large amounts of gamma-irradiated, sterilized disposable plastic-ware and produce a lot of bio-hazardous waste that must be incinerated. The plant-based diet is the long-term solution. Cultured meat will please a techno-niche market, but it will not be the environmental boon some seek, even if production methods do scale up. Raising some grass-fed meat humanely on grasslands too dry to veg-farm, and hunting the over-populated deer in other parts of the country, will probably always happen. “Flexitarian” is probably the best compromise we can hope for.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on September 10th, 2011

    Mitzi,

    Thank you for sharing this; news to me, and extremely informative!

  3. Marianne said on September 11th, 2011

    I just don’t see cultured meat being accepted by the North American public. I know I would rather eat real meat and pay more than eat…faux meat? Sort of meat? I don’t exactly know what to call it. Although, you’d think with all the processed, artificial foods eaten anyways, it wouldn’t be an issue. So hard to say – there are definite benefits and drawbacks.

  4. Rebecca said on September 11th, 2011

    I’m pretty sure deforestation is not a direct cause of cattle ranching, rather the other way around. But otherwise, great post. It does seem silly to manufacture a “solution” when one is available right now.

  5. Jane said on September 12th, 2011

    Ewww. This is the first I’ve heard of scientists trying to ‘grow’ meat.
    Great post as is Mitzi’s response.

  6. Brandon said on September 12th, 2011

    I don’t think this will ever catch on, unless the meat doesn’t have to be labeled “artifical meat”. Farm raised salmon is bad enough, I would never eat a cloned salmon.

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