This was previously published in New Plateaus.
Back in May, I introduced a series on New Plateaus called “Problem Solved?” These posts take a look at current conundrums in our world and introduces revolutionary ways to solve them. Take drunk driving: today we struggle to find that line in the sand between how much to punish/prevent the problem. For all that we do, though, people still drink and then drive.
So the solutions proposed in this series aren’t adjustments to the lines in the sand; they’re ways to get rid of the sand. How do you solve drunk driving? Eliminate driving—via self-driving cars. The article in May was about the struggle to coax organ donors due to kidney shortages.
Today’s piece is about meat.
Meat isn’t cheap; meat harvesting can be controversial. And usually reducing one of these problems means an increase in the other. Sure, chicken can be affordable, but you know those poor fowl lived in some pretty foul conditions.
Besides, no matter the conditions, the amount of land and energy needed to harvest meat is substantial—much more so than the amount of land needed for plant foods. If you buy into the concerns of carbon output on our climate, raising all this livestock can be even more worrisome. But even if you don’t, raising a thousand head of cattle is a huge ordeal that consumes much land and food. And demand is rising, because while meat is considered a luxury in poor countries, some of these populous places (China, India) aren’t so poor anymore—and they like meat, too.
It’s also hard to eat an animal without killing it. A carnivore killing an herbivore is as natural as it gets, and I don’t think anyone has a problem with killing an animal for one’s survival. Most are also okay with eating meat simply because it’s healthy and tastes good. (I do this everyday.) We’re far past the point where we need to kill animals to survive. What this is really about is being able to enjoy meat. And if I can get the satisfaction of eating meat without killing an animal, then isn’t that preferable?
(I’m excluding hunting and fishing from this discussion as the solutions proposed don’t substitute the excitement from these activities—nor are they meant to.)
If we needn’t kill the cow, than why do it?
So what’s the solution to our growing appetites and alerted morality? More watchful regulations on animal treatment as we increase harvest volumes? New ways to grow livestock faster and fatter?
Na. Let’s get rid of the sand: eliminating the need for livestock altogether, in two ways: growing meat without the animal; and the creation of meat substitutes that taste identical to the real thing.
First, here’s this piece from CNN, highlighting the technology of being able to take cells from, say, a cow, bringing these cells to a lab, and creating muscle. After some time and cell division, you’ve got beef. This is actually related to the solution I mentioned in May to the human organ issue. The CNN article reads:
“Hungarian-born Gabor Forgacs, of the University of Missouri, is a specialist in tissue engineering, working to create replacement tissue and organs for humans. He realized the same technology could be used to engineer meat for human consumption.
He became the first scientist in the United States to produce and publicly eat some of his tissue-engineered meat, at the 2011TEDMED conference. His company, Modern Meadow, has already attracted a number of investors since being launched in 2011.”
Of course in its start-up, this meat is not cheaper than getting it the old-fashioned way, running about $100/lb. But like all technology, should expect to drop in price in time.
The second method, from this article from Slate, touts the accomplishments of a company called Beyond Meat. Their fake chicken strips taste so real that vegetarians thought they were accidentally given the real thing. After eating them for a few meals, the author forgot he wasn’t eating the product of a living creature.
Raising livestock in the way we’re used to is traditional and cultural. And for me, eating meat is psychologically soothing. I feel like a meal’s incomplete without meat; and I’d feel shorted if it was fake. But after being in China where the slaughter of animals is in your face, it’s hard for me to ignore the price paid for that meat-eating satisfaction.
If we can get to a point—via growing lab meat and/or creating identical substitutes—where killing an animal isn’t necessary or even just cost-effective, then I think we “get rid of the sand.” Instead of debating about how to treat animals humanely, about how many chemicals is too much to inject into a cow; we simply get rid of the need to use animals at all.
What do you think of eating meat? What about technological alternatives?
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Image of the calf on a summer pasture courtesy of Shutterstock