Ahead of the Curve: Did Earth Just Turn a Corner?

Ahead of the Curve” is a new column exploring how humanists should begin thinking about the enormous changes bound to disrupt our twenty-first century world.

September was a rough month—natural disasters … nuclear war threats … cruelty to refugees … Trump still being president—and October started not with a bang but a barrage of bullets from the thirty-second floor of a Las Vegas hotel room onto 22,000 concertgoers below. As tragic and unsettling as these events are, it’s possible that twenty-second-century historians will look back at this time and say, “That was the decisive turning point for our planet.” All because of a short news item you probably missed.

China signs $300m deal to buy lab-grown meat from Israel.” That’s all the headline said. What the historians may gush over, though, is that September 2017 was when manufactured meat moved from being a cute trick lab nerds could pull off to a mainstream industry that real businesses started using to feed a hungry planet, in a better way than ever before.

This isn’t the first foray into manufactured meat. Bill Gates and Richard Branson have invested some pocket change in a startup, and another half dozen companies are trying to break through as well. But—this just in—$300 million is “real money.” You read it here first. Manufactured meat has officially become a “thing.”

Here are a few aspects of manufactured meat to consider:

It’s “meat.” It’s not laboratory goo. A little muscle cell decides to split in two, then each new half-cell sucks in some nutrients, gets bigger, and does it again, a few million times. This can happen either in a cow’s butt, or in a clean, controlled environment. Either way, it’s “meat.” Which is better?

Taste tests have been done on factory-grown chicken. You already know what’s coming next: “It tastes like chicken.” Beef is a little trickier, but our food industry is already highly skilled at manipulating taste to suit customer preferences. If a substance that can fairly be called “meat” can emerge cost-effectively from a factory rather than a farm, taste is not going to be an issue.

I grew up in a heavily vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist community where I was served “soyburgers” and similar atrocities at neighbors’ houses that inflicted lasting trauma on my ten-year old palate. Never again, I vowed. But factory-grown meat is nothing like this—it’s “meat,” full stop.

The negative environmental impact of livestock production today is incredible. Worldwatch estimates that 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry. Just last week, red-faced NASA-sponsored scientists admitted they’ve actually been dramatically underestimating the effect of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions for years. Oops!  Seventy percent of earth’s agricultural land is devoted to pasture, and the amount of fresh water it takes to produce a pound of beef is several times higher than the amount required to produce other staple foods. The Amazon rainforest has been shrinking at an extraordinary rate. Why? Not for new suburban developments, but for cattle grazing. Factory meat won’t slash these numbers to zero overnight—but once we get better and better at producing it, why shouldn’t they head toward zero in a hurry?

Many of the proposed approaches to dealing with climate change are “hard,” to use a technical term. You can hector people about voluntarily consuming less, like the pope does, with essentially zero effect. You can double the price of transportation and electricity and let poor people just sit home and contemplate the stars. You can have the government borrow and spend trillions of dollars, sticking our great-great-grandchildren with the bill. By contrast, altering the way we produce meat can have a massive effect on greenhouse gases, while actually reducing protein costs for poor people.

Manufactured meat isn’t cheap yet. One article last spring noted that the going price for lab-grown chicken was around $9,000 a pound, while old-fashioned boneless breasts were hovering closer to $3.22. But there isn’t the slightest reason to doubt that bio-engineers will be able to erase and even reverse this differential, probably in the very near future. Cells want to replicate if you give them half a chance. China didn’t just sink $300 million into a project without some excellent technical reasons to believe the investment will yield products people can afford to buy.

Forgetting dry economics for a moment, consider a completely different aspect: how terribly we treat farm animals today. Yuval Noah Harari, in his recent book Homo Deus, goes on at some length about the single example of sows and piglets, presenting enough hard data to persuade even a skeptic that they are emotionally pained by their separation at birth in the same way human mothers and infants would be. (The reason he dwells on this is to project what might happen once “enhanced” humans pass the rest of us by—but that’s another article.) If you’ve ever been to a chicken farm, you know they’re treated even worse.

Despite what I know about these horrors, I am not a vegetarian. My hominid ancestors in Africa liked meat, and I do too. I have never been sufficiently moved to change what I like, or even to be willing to pay more money to eat piglets who were allowed a happier youth. Probably, this means I am a bad person. But whatever spark of decency remains in me is captivated by the possibility that I can still get my pork chops, my country ham, and my bacon in a way that doesn’t cause so much anguish to Babe and his little buddies around the world. China spending $300 million on meat production factories gives my conscience a cost-competitive chance.

Of course, a lot depends on names. I’m no marketing guru, but “laboratory-grown meat” isn’t going to sell well. “Factory meat” isn’t much better. I’ve seen references to “cultured meat” and “clean meat”—maybe those will work. Here’s my idea: what if we started calling the factory product “meat” and the slaughterhouse product “torture meat”?  Which one would you buy? Especially if the factory product was, um, cheaper?

In addition to not being vegetarian, I’ve never been a GMO skeptic either. There is a legitimate concern, shared by some highly educated people, that widespread use of genetically modified plants and animals risks unleashing unpredictable side effects we won’t be able to control, like the pythons in the Everglades. Maybe I’m just naïve for not worrying about this. But the point to be aware of here is that there is no such concern about manufactured meat. It’s just meat, produced in a better way. If, for some reason I have trouble imagining, it has some adverse side effect, then they’ll just change the process for the next batch. There is nothing like the kind of spin-out-of-control risk there is with GMO crops.

Factory produced meat is not going to waltz in without opposition. Billions (maybe trillions) of dollars are invested in ranches and other livestock operations around the world, and these folks aren’t going to just roll over and say, “Thanks for destroying us.” Expect massive PR assaults on manufactured meat, whatever it’s called, from a variety of angles. It’s gross. It tastes awful. It puts cowboys out of work. It’s not kosher. It’s not halal. It’s not vegan. It’s not tested. It’s not safe. It’s Chinese. It’s Jewish. It’s commie. It’s gay. Cousin Millie tried it and didn’t like it. Real men eat real meat. It’s a corporate money-grab plot, like GMO, to destroy the world for their own greedy interests. Some folks won’t even vaccinate their children—what will they think about factory-produced meat?

At some point, the heavy hand of the FDA and/or the Department of Agriculture will be felt. There’s truth to the old “regulatory capture” saw about bureaucrats winding up in the pockets of the industries they regulate. Already, there are battles over use of the word “milk,” with the udder crowd attempting to deny manufacturers the right to use that word in their new products. Consumers have a right to know the origin of the products they buy, but preventing manufacturers from using the word “milk” would be a terrible result for both the environment and our not-so-contented cows. The same battles will surely be played out over meat. But for every lobby there’s a counter-lobby, and factory meat has its own now, too: the “Good Food Institute” formed only a year ago in Washington, DC. I hope they are awfully good at what they do.

People today look back a hundred years ago to a time when women weren’t allowed to vote … to a time two hundred years ago when black people were bought and sold as slaves … to a time three hundred years ago when we were ruled by “divine right” monarchs,  and they say, “What were they thinking? How could anyone have possibly done that?” A hundred years from now, children may have a hard time understanding why anyone ever killed animals and ate them. Gross! What were people thinking back then?