Those of us who still enjoy an occasional steak or a night out at the sushi bar may find our indulgences come with a hefty portion of guilt. If we’re not worried about our waistlines or our arteries from the beef, or our livers from the mercury in the fish, we’re forced to ignore the environmental impacts of our dietary habits as we eat.
After all, livestock are said to be responsible for up to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and that’s not even accounting for the amount of land that is cleared to make way for pasture for the animals. Aggressive overfishing is rapidly depleting the supplies of the tastiest fish that land on our tables, including most species of tuna.
Of course, we could all make the difficult decision to become vegan or vegetarian. (I can hear the groans as I type.) But what is a confirmed carnivore to do?
Science (and commerce, naturally) to the rescue! The Atlantic reports that there are companies out there working hard to grow beef, chicken and even fish that will look, smell and taste like the real thing—in a lab. In fact, the meat will be the real thing, cells taken from living animals grown in a medium of protein, vitamins and sugar; it just won’t have been harvested from once-living animals raised in a factory and slaughtered cruelly on an assembly line. (And, yes, I know there are alternatives to the factory-farm model of livestock-rearing. Buying your meat and eggs directly from local compassionate farmers helps, but not every meat-eater can do that.)
CEO Josh Tetrick of Just Foods, which is working on a chicken-less egg and, uh, an egg-less chicken, and Michael Selden, co-founder of Finless Foods, which is working on a cell-based fish product, are two pioneers on this frontier, according to The Atlantic. But they’ve faced not only criticism from market-watchers, but also technical challenges in their work. Taste is relatively easy, but texture is a big obstacle. Even adults are used to a certain “mouth-feel” with our food; if it looks like a chicken nugget, but feels like a gummy bear in our mouths, we’re likely to revert to angry-toddler status.
Then there is the matter of price. Few grocery shoppers will choose the “greener” alternative if it costs twice as much as plain old bird. Both companies are working to lower costs, particularly by lowering the cost of the nutrient medium and increasing the scale of production.
But perhaps the biggest issue of all is selling the idea of meat without the animal to a human race only a few millennia removed from its hunter-gatherer origins. What do you even call the stuff? Cell-based meat? (All tissue is essentially cell-based, so . . .) Artificial meat? (I think we had that years ago in my school cafeteria.) Lab-grown meat? (Ackk!) One thing is certain, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has argued that nothing should be labeled “beef” that hasn’t stood on four hooves out in a pasture somewhere, mooing loudly.
Josh Tetrick recognizes the labeling problem as central to his marketing strategy. “Back in Alabama, where all my old friends drive pickup trucks, imagine if Tesla put out a really fast, really affordable pickup truck, but Tesla couldn’t call it a pickup truck,” he said. “On the back, they had to say, like, ‘Electric mobility transport wheeler,’ or some godforsaken name. My friends do not want to drive that, because it [messes] with their identity, unfortunately.” Those same friends would be unlikely to choose “lab-grown” burgers for their weekend barbecue.
Yet both Tetrick and Seldon can envision a future where meat and fish grown in huge factory vats is the norm rather than the exception. In that future, livestock grown for slaughter and fish caught in nets on the ocean will be a part of our barbaric past, or practices relegated to aboriginal tribes for their sustenance only. As writers of speculative fiction, it shouldn’t be too hard for us to imagine this future ourselves. In fact, it’s exciting to think we could be part of making it happen.
Information for this post taken from “The Coming Obsolescence of Animal Meat,” by Olga Kazan, The Atlantic, April 16, 2019.