Morality changes, and we shake our heads in disbelief at the conditions that Western society tolerated just a century or two ago—slavery, child labor, mental hospitals as warehouses, voting for white men only, and so on. But let’s not pretend that we’ve now got it all figured out. A century in our future, society might look back on our world in disbelief at the moral errors (from their standpoint) that we found acceptable. Raising animals and then killing and eating them may be one of these moral errors.
There is a solution: synthetic meat.
The moral issue
How many of us have heard someone say that they took a tour of a slaughterhouse and became a vegetarian on the spot? Some cows, chickens, or pigs live fairly natural lives before they are killed for meat, but there are millions that won’t.
I eat meat. What’s my moral excuse? If pressed, I’d argue with a combination of “I like to eat meat” and “Yeah, but everyone else is doing it.” There is a small health issue—getting the right amino acid mix is easy from meat, but from plants it requires some thought—but that is easily resolved. By eating meat, I’m taking the easy route, but I don’t have much of a moral defense.
What got me thinking about this was a recent Sam Harris interview with Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats, a new company working on synthetic meat (Valeti prefers the term cultured meat).
The environmental issue
The magnitude of the environmental problem is as shocking as the moral one.
- Land use. Pastureland (land used for open grazing as well as that used to raise crops for livestock) is one quarter of the earth’s land area (Annenberg). “Only about 20 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used to produce food that is eaten directly by people, while about four times as much is used to feed livestock.” (Union of Concerned Scientists)
- Greenhouse gases. Cows produce a lot of methane. The agriculture contribution to worldwide greenhouse gases is 15% (UN FAO).
- Deforestation. The need for pastureland is a major driver of deforestation (Union of Concerned Scientists).
- Water use. “The consumption of animal products contributes to more than one-quarter of the water footprint of humanity.” Source
- The environmental impact of beef is especially large: “Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world. Beef makes up 24% of the world’s meat consumption, yet requires 30 million square kilometres of land to produce. In contrast, poultry accounts for 34% of global meat consumption and pork accounts for 40%. Poultry and pork production each use less than two million square kilometres of land.” Source
Can cultured meat be the answer?
A 2013 article titled, “A quarter-million pounder and fries” documented the taste test of a €250,000 hamburger, the first made from synthetic beef. We have a long way to go, but, as Sam Harris noted, the cost to sequence a human genome is now around $1000, while the first one, sequenced in 2003, cost $3 billion. Technology predictions often disappoint, but there is room for optimism.
Valeti of Memphis Meats cites the problems with the status quo, both moral and environmental, as the motivation for cultured meat. There are other benefits.
- No antibiotics would be needed (70% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are for livestock).
- The amount and kind of fat in the meat can be tuned.
- There are 4 million illnesses every year from eating meat in the U.S., and most of these are due to unsterile meat from the store.
- Eliminating animal breeders might also eliminate influenza pandemics.
- There would be no risk of prion disease such as BSE.
- The cultured process is more efficient. It now takes 23 calories to make 1 calorie of beef, while Valeti’s process should require just 3 calories.
The public responds
Harris said that his own informal Twitter poll reported that, while most people would switch if the cost and taste were identical to conventional meat, the creepiness factor was a problem to some. I suppose they imagine peaceful grazing cows monitored by hay-chewing cowboys replaced by bubbling vats of chemicals monitored by white-coated technicians. So they’re grossed out by vats but okay with a slaughterhouse?
“Natural” as a trait of food is in vogue today, and there will be pushback against cultured meat. But how natural are the animals we’re growing for meat? Valeti said, “The chickens that we eat now grow 6 to 7 times faster than they would in the natural environment. The cows give about 10 times more milk than what they would naturally give. Turkeys are so top-heavy that they can’t even stand up to breed.”
We’re not there yet
We should hold off celebrations. Hamburgers and sausage may happen quickly (Memphis Meats hopes to release their first product in five years), but complex structures like steak will take longer. A technology maxim that we often forget is that you can’t schedule a breakthrough. The politically powerful ranching industry will fight for the status quo.
Nevertheless, I find it encouraging that a startup like Memphis Meats quickly found funding.
The switch to a diet with meat has been credited with changing our genus and permitting our large human brain. Maybe we’ll soon be able to eat that diet with a clear conscience.
In 50 years, I personally believe that
the thought of slaughtering animals for meat
will be laughable.
— Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats
Image credit: IQRemix, flickr, CC