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:
- Animal welfare: The vast majority of animals raised for human consumption are routinely treated in despicably inhumane ways, as seen in this short 10-minute documentary (WARNING: Graphic depictions of violence towards animals are shown).
- Environment: Almost eighty percent of Amazonian deforestation is a direct cause of cattle ranching. As a recent Pew Environment Group report explains, “Maryland and Delaware alone produce roughly 523 million chickens a year, along with an estimated 42 million cubic feet of litter—enough to fill the U.S. Capitol dome nearly 50 times annually, or almost once a week.” Those are just two of hundreds of examples.
- Human Health: High meat intake has been linked to increased risks for a variety of chronic diseases, including diabetes, various cancers, and heart disease.
- Labor: The Food Empowerment Project provides an excellent summary of the physical, emotional, and ethical issues that slaughterhouse workers endure on a daily basis.
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.