Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the way things are. We want new, and we want it now. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often goes unchallenged.
This is particularly true for technology. Many people become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies, regardless of their utility or the benefits they actually provide. The latest iPhone can be launched with giddy enthusiasm, and not even a day will pass before 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. Technological utopianism, or techno-optimism — the hope that there will always be some new and better technological fix just around the corner — flows throughout our culture. It’s even been embraced by environmentalists. (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’m still on the fence about the role that technology plays in solving environmental problems. It depends on the technology, and the problem to be solved. 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 just automatically assume that all technological advances are beneficial. Sometimes the incremental gains made by technological progress to never quite catch up to its losses (also known as the Jevons paradox).
The advent of “cultured meat” seems to be one of those rare instances of a technological breakthrough whose benefits would be immediately apparent and undoubtedly massive. It’s a rare case where newer is better — much better.
Cultured meat (also known as lab-grown/artificial/synthetic/in vitro 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.
The World Bank and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) estimate that animal agriculture (livestock) accounts for 14.5% of total global carbon emissions (7,100 MtCO2e/year). Cultured meat has the potential to drastically reduce these emissions, as well as the associated energy, water, and land use impacts, in some cases by an order of magnitude. 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 some cultured meat start-ups have claimed), it would be very difficult to set up an argument against it. It would become even more difficult to defend the unnecessary mistreatment of animals in factory farms.
The world’s first meatball made from cultured meat.
(Photo credit: Memphis Meats)
Food, however, is a delicate subject. The act of eating is much more than just the acquisition of nutrients (something the food journalist Michael Pollan pejoratively refers to as ‘nutritionism’). Eating is an act that represents more than just the sum of its parts: it involves biology, history, culture, politics, labour, ecology, aesthetics, social relationships, civilization, life, death.
Meat started to become a significant part of our distant (pre-human) ancestors’ diet roughly 2.6 million years ago. This played an important part of our physiological evolution, allowing our more recent human ancestors the ability to easily digest meat. (The fact that the modern human species is an omnivore isn’t to suggest that eating meat is “good” or “bad”. That would be an appeal to nature fallacy.)
Our species’ evolutionary and cultural history with meat-eating may be part of the reason why so many react negatively to the idea of meat that’s synthetically created in a laboratory. Our instincts say it’s wrong, even when most people are more than happy to eat so many other synthetically-made, edible food-like substances, including (especially?) those synthetically-made plant-based foods masquerading as “natural” and “healthy”. This is perhaps not entirely unfounded, considering 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.)
In conclusion: 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.
Photo credit: Afimilk Silent Herdsman (via The Conversation)