An Eco-moo-dernist Manifesto: Technology, meat, and the future of food

cow-computer

Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Whether it be music, art, fashion, even human relationships, most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the status quo. We want new, and we want it often. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often passes unchallenged.

This is particularly true for technology. Many of us become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies and new ways of doing things, regardless of the utility or actual benefit they provide. The latest iPhone can be revealed to the world with giddy enthusiasm, and not 24 hours later people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds

It’s perhaps the reason why so many people want to believe that technology will solve all our most pressing problems. Techno-optimism — the hope that there will be some new and better technological fix just around the corner — has flowed out of Silicon Valley and permeated through Wall Street and Main Street. It’s even been embraced by environmentalism. (The Ecomodernist Manifesto, which I’ve been critical of in the past, is the inspiration for the terrible pun in the title of this post.)

I’ve grown to not be so optimistic about the role of technology in solving societal and environmental problems. While I would never argue against those specific technologies and advances that have proven to be immeasurably beneficial — such as medicine and information technology — I believe that we should be hesitant to adopt any new technology until we can reliably assess its social, environmental and ethical costs and benefits. We should not automatically assume that all technological advances are unidirectionally positive. The gains made by technology seem to never quite catch up to its losses (for example, in the realm of urban sustainability).

And yet.

The advent of cultured meat (also known as lab-grown/artificial/synthetic/in vitro meat) seems to be one of those rare instances of a technological breakthrough whose benefits would be immediately apparent and undoubtedly massive. Cultured meat is still made of real animal protein. The “culturing” process involves multiplying the stem cells of a given animal in a petri dish or container of nutrients, and growing them into edible muscle tissues. It’s a case where newer is better — much better. And it may just be around the corner.

It has the potential to drastically reduce carbon emissions, energy and water use and associated land use impacts of animal agriculture, in some cases by an order of magnitude. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, cultured meat would put an end to the needless torture and suffering of billions of sentient beings each year.

If cultured meat can ultimately be created in such a way that it’s molecularly identical to its real counterpart, indistinguishable in terms of taste, texture and appearance, and better in terms of health, safety and price (as indeed some cultured meat start-up companies have claimed), then it would become next to impossible to make any rational argument against it. We could no longer continue to defend the (mis)treatment of animals as commodities in factory farms and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation).

Meatless Meatball - Memphis MeatsThe world’s first meatball made from cultured meat.
(Photo credit: Memphis Meats)

Food, however, is a delicate subject. Whether we realize it or not, food represents so much more than just the acquisition of nutrients (a worldview that the journalist Michael Pollan pejoratively refers to as ‘nutritionism’). It’s about more than just the food itself: it’s about biology, history, culture, ecology, friends, family, civilization, life.

It’s part of the reason why so many react negatively to the idea of “meat” created synthetically in a laboratory. Our instincts say it’s wrong, even when most people are more than aware of the fact that they eat so many other synthetically-made, food-like substances. For some reason our instincts about meat are different, and perhaps not entirely unfounded, when you consider the strong role that disgust plays in evolutionary psychology. (Interestingly, research has shown that people who eat the most meat are the most sensitive to disgust.)

However, if we can get cultured meat to a place where it is identical, indistinguishable, and even better than the real thing — if we could decouple our food systems from the social, environmental, and ethical costs of animal agriculture — then I believe that it has the potential to be one of the most important and beneficial technological breakthroughs ever achieved. 

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Photo credit: Afimilk Silent Herdsman (via The Conversation)

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