Archive for the ‘Industrial Food’ Category
Last year Nicholas Kristof published a disturbing column—disturbing even by Nicholas Kristof standards—on an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States of a Kentucky pig outfit named Iron Maiden Farm (yeah, really). The operation—a typical embodiment of Big Agriculture—was caught feeding a slush of piglet intestines to sows in order to establish immunity against a devastating disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea (PEDv). This technique, “controlled exposure,” is “widely accepted,” according to the Kentucky Livestock Coalition. Lovely.
The virus broke out last May in Iowa and has killed over three million pigs nationwide. As a way to avoid this intestine-based smoothie, Kristof urged consumers to forgo factory-farmed pork in exchange for pork produced by small farms. He sites the well-known Niman Ranch as an example. In other words, just buy your pork from the right places.
This advice seems perfectly sensible—and in many cases involving porcine disease it would be. Swine consolidation can enhance the spread of certain pathogens. However, in the instance of PEDv, the connection between farm size and disease is tenuous at best. Small farms, according to many experts I’ve spoken with, turn out to be every bit at risk of getting hit with an outbreak of PEDv as large ones. “This virus doesn’t discriminate,” says Dr. Russ Daley, a South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian with whom I spoke the day after the HSUS expose dropped. In fact, Daley had recently spoken with a family farmer with 40-50 pigs who experienced a deadly outbreak of PEDv.
This is precisely the kind of detail that media coverage of factory farming almost never includes. Ever. Too often, it reduces the broad continuum of animal agriculture to “factory farming” and “humane farming.” But agriculture is much more diverse than that. Farms don’t break down into simple categories.
Dirigo Quality Meats, a company that provides pork farms of all sizes with biosecurity plans, draws on sound veterinary science to highlight an important culprit behind the spread of PEDv. It’s not farm size. Rather, it’s birds. DQM writes:
So what farms are at risk? Right now, this virus has been identified at large hog operations, but, that’s where the vets and research money are. Smaller producers who can’t or don’t implement practices are at very high risk. … If there are birds coming in and out of the tractor trailers parked outside, those birds are flying to other farms.
DQM advises pig farmers to “keep birds away from pigs and practice biosecurity,” but tellingly notes, “that’s all well and good for large hog farms with indoor housing and multiple trucks for transportation, but what’s a small diversified farm to do?” (Of course, the answer is hire DQM!)
There are other factors to include when evaluating Kristof’s advice to avoid PEDv-infected farms by sourcing pork from small farms. Many experts suggest that small farms are less likely to report an outbreak of PEDv in the first place
“Undoubtedly, more farms have PEDv than is reported in the official count,” Dr. Ron Plain, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, told the PORKNetwork. “I think it is reasonable to estimate that the official count of infected farms is less than half of the actual total. I suspect small farms are less likely to pay for the confirmation test than large ones.”
Other considerations challenge the connection between farm size and PEDv prevalence. Transportation to and from the farm—particularly by the trucks that bring pigs to slaughter—helps spread the disease. Pigs from small and large farms typically go to the same slaughter facilities, according to Daley. Furthermore, PEDv has been linked to commercial feed, which both confined and pastured pigs consume in abundance. In fact, according to Daley, small farmers may be more reliant on externally sourced commercial feed than big farmers, which often produce their own feed on site.
Daley correctly notes that “we have no direct comparisons” on small and large farms. But in one study of PEDv prevalence on North Carolina pig farms, operations that tested positive for PEDv had an average herd size of 4,683. Those that tested negative had a herd size that was almost the same, at 4,035. What mattered when it came to the presence of PEDv wasn’t the size of the farm—they were all pretty big—but the visitation of trucks. Positive sites had double the truck traffic than negative sites. “Site capacity was not significantly associated with PEDv,” the study concluded.
There’s a common assumption among very prominent writers who cover food and farming that size matters when it comes to the spread of disease on animal farms. I wish matters were so simple. While this correlation may sometimes be the case with some diseases in some places, there’s very little to suggest that it’s true for PEDv (and other diseases—see this, this, and this). Consumers would be foolish to trust the old axiom that “humane” small farms are inherently safer than their larger counterparts. Animals raised in low density on pasture might be happier, but not necessarily healthier.
A few days ago I wrote about the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and animal agriculture. The gist of the piece was that there’s so much animal flesh to keep healthy that eating animals is implicit support for an industry that already makes too much money over-medicating humans.
Since then, I’ve realized there’s another angle to this topic, one that’s more sinister, one that I missed. An article on The Cattle Site reveals that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in more than antibiotics and vaccines. It’s also using animal welfare as a pretext to market new drugs for farm animals.
Leading the charge to sell drugs that will create a calmer cow is Merck. Recently the company announced the launch of “Creating Connections.” According to The Cattle Site, it’s “a new program designed to help producers better understand cattle behavior and use that knowledge to employ strategies that can reduce stress, improve reproduction and foster stronger immune responses.”
In other words, Merck has found a way to exploit welfare washing for profit. The idea here is that you drug the beasts into a stupor so they don’t express feelings of distress and in turn—the real motive—cooperate with their executioners. This is a tactic that makes life easier for ranchers and meatpacking plant workers while making Merck look like it’s in league with the Humane Society as a steward of animals.
But it’s a bad joke. The piece explains, “Since calmer cattle are easier to examine, diagnose, treat and move, the techniques shared through Creating Connections will help make iteasier for producers to improve the health of their herds.”
As is to be expected, asinine blather has poured forth to justify these happy drugs. “The behavior of cattle – how they interact with each other and with people – can be shaped by positive interactions with caregivers, and tell us a tremendous amount about how cattle are feeling,” said Tom Noffsinger, D.V.M., a consulting feedyard veterinarian well known for his work on low-stress cattle handling practices.
It’s not about lowering stress, but hiding it. You hook cows’ udders to milk pumping machines, send their babies to the meat counter as veal chops, and turn them into hamburger when production declines. But because you have drugged the cows into oblivion they don’t seem to mind, and so you can work more efficiency, not to mention less burdened by the suspicion that you’re doing something very wrong.
But come on. If it’s welfare that we’re really concerned about, here’s something to consider: don’t bring these creatures into existence in the first place. There will be no suffering to medicate if you just use your resources to grow flora rather than fauna. Otherwise, spare us the welfare talk.
Nobody is really that stupid.
When you think of the pharmaceutical industry, animal agriculture is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But, in a telling reminder of how intricate the web of agribusiness can be, a recent report claims that the global animal health market is a multi billion dollar industry. With China on the verge of sending rates of meat consumption through the roof, it’s also one that has every intention of rapidly expanding in the near future. The reason for the industry’s existence, in short, is animal agriculture (with a boost coming from companion animals).
Critical to the industry’s success are vaccines, medicated feed, and a variety of reproductive and respiratory drugs. Critics of industrial agriculture are correct to lament the connection between drugs and CAFOs. But it’s also important to remember that animals raised in smaller settings also require frequent medication for basic ailments. In my forthcoming book, The Modern Savage (which you can pre-order), I detail the extent to which small farmers rely on the animal health industry to medicate their livestock. As long as we eat animals raised for food, and as long as animals get colds and ticks and fleas, we’ll have a sector of the pharmaceutical industry that thrives on that appetite.
The world’s top animal health firms are: Zoetis (formerly Pfizer), Merck, Merial, Eli Lilly, Bayer, Boehringer, and Novartis. They are enjoying a growth rate of about 5 percent a year. One common corporate strategy is to leverage human drugs for the animal market. And, from a corporate perspective, why not? There are only 7 billion humans, but 100 billion or so farm animals. That’s a lot more flesh and bones to keep medicated.
Concerned consumers have many reasons for not wanting to support this industry. Not only are millions of animals subjected to brutal tests in order to create these drugs, but the impact of these drugs on global ecosystems is substantial. These drugs enter the environment through excrement, urine, and direct disposal. The State of Washington notes how it can all come back to us: “Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well. Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater.”
The takeaway here is this: Our choice to raise billions of animals for food requires more than land, air, and water–all of which is bad enough. So much more is hidden from us. When we eat animals we often fail to understand the how broadly the ripple effects extend. Growing plants is hardly a chemically harmless endeavor, but it’s nothing like animal ag, where every hour is pharmaceutical cocktail hour.
Nicholas Kristof has this annoying way of being the last gumshoe to arrive at the crime scene, writing about the incident as if he were the first on the scene, and delivering a completely inane verdict about what should be done to rectify the situation. This claim is especially true when it comes to his coverage of animal issues.
Yesterday he dedicated a column to the abuse of chickens confined on “cage free” farms. If you care enough about animal welfare to keep up with the relevant news regarding agribusiness you would have to be totally checked out to think that Perdue was treating its chickens well. But here came Kristof to blow the lid off the scam. Turns out “cage free” doesn’t mean squat. Turns out Perdue doesn’t give a cluck about the welfare of birds.
Well. No. Shit.
But that’s not really my problem with Kristof–nor should it be. I actually applaud him for dedicating the world’s most valuable journalistic space to the welfare of chickens. My problem comes later in the column. It comes with how he handles his “discovery.” First he shines his journalistic strobe light on severe suffering:
Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.
(Sidebar: The “farmboy” thing again. Okay, got it. You were raised on a farm in Oregon. But now you are a columnist at the world’s most prestigious paper. And that means–or it should mean–that you need to do some real thinking.)
Then note his conclusion in the face of this suffering: “I don’t know where to draw the lines.”
What? For real? Really? This is insane. On the one hand, Kristof wants to take credit for exposing the horror of what Perdue does to its birds. But on the other, he won’t even adhere to the ineffable logic of his own reporting.
Hey, Nick: when you confront the systematic and morally atrocious treatment of chickens, and when you yourself realize that this treatment is endemic, and when you reveal this reality to millions of readers, there’s a very easy line to draw: you stop eating chickens.
And you get very brave. You tell your readers to stop eating chickens. And then you call your colleague Bittman and ask him to follow suit, and then Bittman can call his friends in the foodie world, and then . . .
Well, then you’re a hero. But otherwise you’re kind of a coward.
The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message—that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture—is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we’re saving a dying planet?
Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world’s largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization’s defining platform. But it’s not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I’m proud to have that film on my side.
In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors—Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson—have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the “sustainable” food movement’s effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It’s a shame, really.
Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There’s no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action—eliminating animals from agriculture—in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.
It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it’s extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.
The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised—even Joel Salatin, the guru, can’t do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren’t allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they’re “harvested” about 1/5th of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals—they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.
How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I’d love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?
There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:
[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.
The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.
The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.
As conscientious carnivores go about the noble business of supporting local, small, nonindustrial, and humane animal farms, the international exchange of animal products proceeds with nary a pause. Exploring the underworld of global meat exchange tends to quash any hope for responsible alternatives to industrial animal production. At the intersection of Neoliberalism and meatonomics is a vivid reminder that our trendy support of boutique animal farms has no bearing on the problem at large. The problem at large, really, could care less about your locally raised pork cheeks.
More often than not, Chinese demand drives the quest for flesh and all that its production requires. To wit, representatives from the English livestock industry are currently invading China to assess market potential for English sheep. The Chinese have more sheep than any nation in the world. Still, they can’t come close to meeting growing consumer demand. The English are happy to halt the reforestation of British uplands to help the Chinese meet their meat. In China, meat consumption has spiked from 4 kg per person in 1961 to 57 kg per person in 2011. You can count on it: the English will do anything, including degrading their own landscape, to ensure that the Chinese don’t want for righteous lamb chops.
Another global commodity has brought together the Irish and the Vietnamese: pork. The precipitating event came when Vietnamese veterinary authorities opened the door for frozen pork from Ireland. Vietnam has long been identified by Irish officials as a “priority target”—I love how industry uses such verbiage– and the announcement of this deal led to the immediate opening of five Irish pig processing plants dedicated exclusively to supplying Vietnam. Jobs! Currently 80-90 percent of Vietnamese pork comes from backyard herds. That’s about to change. You’ll see it happen as Ireland gets greener.
Yet another example that killing sentient animals and destroying the environment fosters international bonds involves Denmark and Russia. The unifying ingredient here is salmon. Russia, which has banned salmon imports from much of the west, has turned to the Faroe Islands for its salmon stash. The Faroese, who were formerly banned from importing to Russia, are as happy as a fish in water: “We’re in the opposite situation from before Christmas,” said a Faroe Island official. “Before, everyone could sell to Russia except us [due to Russian bans on certain Faroese trawlers]. Now, only we can.” The Russians have also asked the Faroese to exploit their waters for mackerel and herring while they’re at it.
Meanwhile, the Amazon is getting more excited about this international group hug. Driven in particular by European and Chinese demand for cheap soy feed for their livestock, Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso is dedicating more and more forest land–and thus carbon, water, and nutrients–to animals confined in Europe and China. Such “resource flows”—yet another one of those whacked industry terms—come with costs. Said one team of researchers: ”Our estimated environmental footprints suggest potential regional impacts on climate, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and a possible incremental soil phosphorous saturation that could increase the risk of eutrophication in the long term.” Translation: bad.
And there’s nothing that your happy meat can do about it. All meat must be stigmatized. Not just industrial.
As you may have heard, Whole Foods is establishing a pilot program to sell rabbit meat. Take a moment and read the company’s welfare standards here and you’ll quickly realize that the rabbits can be produced under conditions very close to industrial circumstances. For example, “Although outdoor access is not required . . . .” And so on.
Interestingly, the welfare regulations outlined in the link above abruptly end when it comes to slaughter methods. Transport is covered: “Transport must not exceed 8 hours.” But nothing about the killing itself. This omission should raise a red flag. Surely, the “harvesting” is regulated, right?
Nope. Rabbit meat falls under state inspection. In Texas you can apply for an inspection exemption. For example, here’s this from the Texas Department of Health Services: “Anyone that raises poultry or rabbits, and slaughters 10,000 birds or rabbits (or combination thereof) per year or less may opt to apply for a Grant of Poultry Exemption instead of a Grant of Inspection. These products may be sold on the farm or through locations other than the farm.” Other states allow the same (how many I’ve not yet researched).
Whole Foods in general relies on Temple Grandin’s regulations to ensure the following:
- Healthy condition of animals upon arrival
- Calm, efficient unloading procedures
- Animals handled with patience, skill and respect
- Clean, well-designed facility ensuring quiet movement of the animals
- Appropriate flooring to ensure the animals’ stability
- Stringent stunning efficacy requirements
Again, though, note that there’s nothing on process of slaughter itself. To discover if there were any regulations regarding how rabbits were dispatched, I searched around the extension agency literature. Here’s advice from an undated Texas A&M report:
“The preferred method of slaughtering a rabbit is by dislocating its neck. With the left hand hold the animal by its hind legs. Place the thumb of the right hand on the neck just behind the ears, with the fingers extended under the chin. Push down on the neck with the right hand, stretching the animal. Press down with the thumb. Then with a quick movement, raise the animal’s head and dislocate the neck.”
A recent Mississippi extension agent recommends this:
“The rabbit is held firmly by the rear legs and head; it is stretched full length. Then with a hard, sharp pull, the head is bent backward to dislo- cate the neck. The rabbit can also be struck a hard, quick blow to the skull behind the ears. A blunt stick or side of the hand is commonly used to incapacitate the rabbit. Both methods quickly render the rabbit unconscious.”
To be sure, there are rabbit slaughterers out there who really want the slaughter to be done properly, because if you screw up, you know, the meat won’t taste very good. Raising-rabbits.com warns:
“Any stress during the butchering process can result in the release of adrenaline and other endocrine hormones associated with the animal’s flight response. These hormones negatively affect the flavor of the rabbit meat, and will toughen the meat.”
It then instructs you how to kill a rabbit with a broomstick.
“Cultured meat”—edible animal flesh that’s grown through “tissue engineering techniques”—may not be the most appetizing prospect on the culinary horizon. But it has entered the heady lexicon of sustainability for good reason.
As a recent Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study revealed, lab-grown meat could slake our inveterate craving for burgers while consuming 82-96 percent less water, producing 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and occupying 99 percent less land. “We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Mark Post, the Maastricht University physiologist who spent years developing lab meat with the financial support of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, told Bloomberg.
Equally relevant for many consumers is the fact that lab meat appears to be more humane than current methods of production. While it’s true that production now requires stem cells to be extracted from living cattle and marinated in the blood of cow fetuses, Post is hopeful that fetal bovine serum (as the extraction is called) might someday be replaced with blue algae, thus obviating this phase of exploitation. Whatever method is eventually used, if lab meat catches on there’s much evidence to suggest that we might substantially reduce the assembly line of cattle pouring into the abattoir.
Lab meat, even by today’s industrialized standards, is a relatively outlandish proposition. But that hasn’t kept media assessments from being surprisingly upbeat about its potential. In 2011, a normally skeptical Michael Specter warmed to the idea, writing in the New Yorker that, in terms of technology, a lab burger could viably approximate the taste and texture of a real burger and, in turn, offer a viable substitute for it. Costs were prohibitive, he noted, but then what successful technology wasn’t unduly expensive at the outset?In USA Today, Farm Sanctuary’s advocacy director, Bruce Friedrich, pounced on the Oxford study to deem lab meat clean, green, and lean—not to mention a product that had him eager to “fire up the grill” and end the meat industry “as we know it.”
Others have been less sanguine. David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canada, tells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?
Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”
In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).
As Engber suggests, the discussion of cultured cells has overlooked, well, culture. Eating meat for many consumers is about more than just eating meat. Lab meat is about more than technological feasibility. As much as I would love to see cultured meat replace its conventional counterpart, I’m fairly certain that the culinary tastemakers, not to mention the vast majority of consumers, will never go for it. It’s heavily processed (not pure, not authentic, not “all natural”); it’s divorced from tradition (can you imagine grandma’s chicken fried steak made with a cut of lab meat?); and, in the simplest terms, it’s not meat (at least as we know meat).
Culinary change happens all the time, and there’s no doubt radical changes are required if we ever hope to achieve a just food system. But, at this stage, I think we’re better off encouraging consumers not to eat the stuff at all rather than asking them to fake it with a redundant substitute.
This piece originally ran in Pacific Standard in 2013.