Archive for the ‘Industrial Food’ Category
My piece on dairy at Forbes last week has generated considerable discussion. That’s good. The bulk of it has centered on my decision to refer to artificial insemination as a procedure that causes—here come the controversial words– ‘immense suffering.” That’s frustrating. When I wrote those words, I had two things in mind. First, that the physical process caused suffering and, second, that the consequences of that physical process caused suffering. Together, I reasoned, the suffering was not normal. It was abnormal. Immense came to mind.
Putting aside the point that this emphasis on such a small aspect of the article only affirms the legitimacy of piece’s underlying message, it is worth wondering if, in fact, artificial insemination is a procedure that would cause suffering. Did I overstate? “Aaron” thought I was off the mark, writing,
I have artificially inseminated many cows, and it would be the equivalent of a prostate exam for humans—intrusive, but not painful (haven’t had one, but my M.D. wife tells me that). Vets employ the same technique to assess any number of things going on inside cows and horses. Sure, the animals are restrained, but no more than when they would to be given a vaccine, milked, whatever. Depending on a cow’s personality and intensity of her heat, some even stand still in the middle of a wide open pen or pasture to be artificially inseminated.
First, notice that he calls a prostate exam “not painful” (um, Aaron, when that special day comes, you will retract these words faster than you can say “ever do time, doc?”). Notice also that he makes this assessment on the grounds that his wife tells him so (Aaron really is in for a shocker!). Also notice how he makes it sound as if a cow will often act as if she wanted to have a pipette of semen placed in her vagina– “some even stand still” for the penetration. If this all sounds crazy, Aaron has Brian to keep him company. Brian writes,
Cows do not mind being inseminated. I inseminate about 125 cows per year. I am right behind a cow when I inseninate [sic] her, if she did mind being inseminated, I would get kicked very hard.
Hmm. Now might be a good time to consider exactly what must happen in order for a cow to be artificially inseminated. By way of foreshadowing, let’s speculate that the cow might not be able to kick Brian to the curb because she likely has an arm up her rectum. Anyway, here’s this, from a medical manual:
Once the cervix is located, it must be grasped and controlled so that the inseminating instrument can be inserted. Encircle the cervix with the thumb and fingers in such a way that the thumb is on top of the cervix and the fingers re under the cervix. The thumb should stay on top without rotating the wrist. This can be difficult and tiring – it takes effort to stretch the rectal wall. As the inseminating instrument is slid forward the cervix must be pushed forward to straighten out the vaginal folds. Remember, the cow is trying to force the cervix toward the vulva and thus creates more folds. If the cervix is not pushed forward, the tip of the instrument can get caught in a fold and stretch or puncture the vagina.
We discussed Tim Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds in my “eating meat in America” class today. For those who don’t know this book, you should. You must. Pachirat’s material comes from his work as an undercover employee in an Omaha slaughterhouse. For five months, as fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation, he studied the Nebraskan abattoir from every angle, every nook, every cranny, documenting in finely grained detail the 121 stages of production required to bring meat to our plate, leather to our jackets, and, of course, fecal blood to our research laboratories. Of course. Of course.
Better than any analysis I’ve ever read, or could imagine reading, the book explores the interlocking politics of concealment and surveillance required to convince civilized society to go collectively brain dead over mass slaughter, worker abuse, and ecological degradation.
As near as I can tell, my students were moved. But in weirdly different ways. The arc of emotions expressed in class ranged from denial to silence to tears. What I mean is that some talkers stayed silent while others took safe refuge in cold intellectual abstraction while another bravely just let it all go. Pachirat writes almost antiseptically about death. He doesn’t hype up anything. He’s about as engagingly objective about the mechanics of killing sentient beings as one could be. And that’s exactly what’s so chilling about his book. Cramming for class this morning, I, too, kept crying. Not your normal day at the office.
Before discussing the book, my co-teacher, a philosopher (who was a NY Times Magazine finalist on justifying eating animals), led a beyond intriguing discussion about the moral implications of disgust. Does disgust signify immorality? Or is it merely an evolutionary response to disease that’s been periodically highjacked by rogues and psychopaths to sow seeds of xenophobia and tribalism? In the end, we sort of nodded in the direction of both options, but we did so under the agreement that disgust should be evaluated in terms of the contemporary goal it’s attempting to legitimate. At the least, we were intrigued by disgust, which more than I ever was as an undergraduate.
What struck me the most was how Pachirat’s conceptual framework kept framing our own discussion. I could see it in too many faces that never spoke: the concealment of big ideas in silence, the surveillance of professorial authority and external expectation. I remarked how stunned I was by the power of crass capitalism to create an institution so perverse that it could, under one roof, make room for paper pushers and fetus bleeders.
And then it was 3:2o and time to move on to who knows what.
The best thing that humans could do for wildlife is to leave wildlife alone. This seems like an axiom so sensible it need not be said. But it must. In fact it cannot be said enough.
Intervention efforts, even when the motives are altruistic, routinely–nay, inevitably– backfire. When we intervene, we assume we know more about ecosystems that we could ever possibly know. We work under a set of assumptions about plan A leading to consequence B that are, for all the science justifying them, haphazard and untested. The results speak for themselves.
But here’s the thing: we are human, we are going to manipulate resources to serve our wants and needs, to innovate, to feed our curiosity and, yes, to quest for power. That’s what we do. But we must do two things if we are to sustain ourselves: carve out proper space for our activities and reduce our numbers.
Population control and density: these are the most environmentally responsible goals we can puruse. We would all be better off if humans undertook most of our transformative endeavors in settings where resources and people were densely packed and there were a hell of a lot of rules that were enforced. I know this is all vague, but work with me because, somewhere in here, I think there’s a Big Idea.
Robert Bryce’s piece in today’s WSJ is instructive. It drives home the ironies of altruistic interventions into relatively natural ecosystems. We want to save the world with wind power so we propose to construct turbines in places we rarely see, places that are landscapes of the imagination. Seems like a progressive plan. But then the turbines spin and we we find ourselves faced with the prospect of killing bald and golden eagles, violating a federal act and, more importantly, mucking up an ecosystem we have no business exploiting to our benefit. “[I]f more turbines are built,” writes Bryce, “more eagles will be killed.”
In other instances, our actions are less altruistic but harm wildlife in unexpected ways as well. Currently Bighorn sheep are dying of pneumonia in the Mohave Desert. One hypothesis is that an angora goat shot by a hunter may have spread the infection. Hunting is often justified as a proper conservation measure. Not in this case. Not in most cases. Another, more likely, possibility is that truckloads of domestic sheep being driven through the region are spreading the disease.
Either way, interventions for food we don’t need is harming wildlife in systematic ways. Our unnecessary crossover into peripheral landscapes, in this case for cheap meat, is to blame for our destruction of wildlife and undermining of biodiversity. If we simply stayed out of the few relatively undeveloped regions we have left, allowed them to exist on their own terms, and gradually expanded their range, the fate of wild animals would be much better off. As would that of humans.
Too often we’re our own worst enemies. Our forays into the peripheries are whimsical. And, on the flip side, too often our behavior at the centers are retrograde and romantic. We fail to tolerate potentially beneficial technologies—such as nuclear power or bioengineering—to enhance the power of density to save ourselves from ourselves. We say these are “unnatural” and dismiss them.
Again, all vague at this point, but what I’m proposing is a way of thinking about the human-ecosystem relationship such that we allow wilderness to be wilderness, humans to be humans, innovation to be innovation, cities to be cities, rural areas to be rural areas, and our thoughts about nature to become supple enough to accommodate nuclear reactors and bald eagles at the same time.
A version of the following piece of mine ran yesterday in Pacific Standard. To research the story, I spoke with several Chipotle representatives who genuinely believe that they are building a company with different values than those driving typical fast food chains. I believe them.
My argument here is not that we should rise up and tear down all the Chipotles in the world because they serve animal products. Even though I certainly support the theoretical elimination of all animal product consumption, I also know that the order of our world is currently such that we’re nowhere close to crossing that threshold.
So when the third largest publicly-traded fast food company in the world decided to make animal welfare a priority—even if only rhetorically— I find myself inclined to see that move as a form of progress. Honestly, what choice do we have? What follows is highly critical of Chipotle, but also written in the spirit of thinking that this is a company that, as “responsible meat” gets more expensive and harder to source, will evolve toward an all-veggie fast food company. That prospect is not beyond the pale of the possible, and it would be worth celebrating.
Should you be moved to comment, please do so here. Also, thank you for the great comments in yesterday’s post. Tomorrow morning I’ll be excerpting them in the letter I’m sending to the Austin City Council, which will consider revising my city’s urban farming regulations next week.
Fast-food empires—McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so on—fuel the engine of agribusiness. They support an industrialized supply stream clogged with hormone-laden beef, genetically modified corn and soy, and an endless flow of processed “food-like substances.” They support the alienation and mistreatment of farm laborers, who are paid a pittance for their neck-down work. They support meals weighted with alarming quantities of sodium and fat, leading to an obesity and diabetes crisis. Fast food means high volume and high volume means industrial agriculture and industrial agriculture means food that’s bad for animal welfare, bad for the environment, and bad for people’s health (PDF). For any conscientious consumer, this paragraph is, unfortunately, very old news.
Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill—the foodie’s alternative for a relatively quick and responsible meal—is often complicit in these culinary crimes and misdemeanors. Despite the company’s savvy effort to brand itself otherwise, it inevitably finds itself ensnared in an industrial system that effectively churns out a smorgasbord of meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, and a steady flow of condiments. Insisting that, as spokesperson Danielle Winslow told me, “our first priority is to accommodate our customers”—which effectively means supplying all ingredients at full capacity all the time—Chipotle has yet to roll a burrito that evades the reach of factory farming.
You’d never know this from the company’s successful promotional campaigns. Through advertising endeavors such as its “Food With Integrity” program, or its declaration that a Chipotle burrito is a “hand crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changingcylinder of deliciousness,” or in-store signs that declare “no prescription needed” (if the meat is antibiotic-free), or, most recently (and virally), a short video—”The Scarecrow“—thoroughly lambasting the industrial food system, the publicly traded company with 1,500 stores nationwide has established a reputation so deeply infused with agrarian virtue that many consumers simply assume that the company really is leading a revolution to produce burritos high in rectitude, low in guilt, and wrapped in responsibility. For the effectiveness of its advertisements, Chipotle is in a league of its own.
To its credit, the company hasn’t ignored the disparity between its advertised ideals and actual choices. It’s usually the first to recognize its shortcomings and, as conversations with company representatives reiterate, transparency seems genuinely valued. Generally, it adopts a sensible “we’re doing our best under the circumstances” approach to external criticisms about its linkages to industrial agriculture, arguing that by demanding “all-natural” and “humanely raised” meat it’s incentivizing the current food system to scale down, decentralize, and return to more authentic methods of production. This position seems reasonable enough, if not revolutionary, given that it’s coming from “the third largest publicly traded restaurant in terms of market capitalization” behind McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.
But here’s the deal: The logic only sticks if the company decides to buck up and honestly adhere to the sustainable food movement’s most basic tenets, ones to which it so vigorously appeals in its marketing endeavors. Two precepts in particular—eating what’s in season and deciding that when the supply of one responsibly sourced ingredient declines you make up for it with another responsibly sourced ingredient—are, according to the movement that Chipotle has so successfully tapped into, critical to achieving the genuine change it promotes. When it comes time to walk this walk, though, Chipotle goes risk averse.
Consider Chipotle’s recent response to declining supplies of “responsibly raised” beef. In 1999 the company started sourcing “all-natural” beef from producers that raised animals mostly on pasture and eschewed antibiotics and growth hormones. Over the years Chipotle has formed strong relationships with smaller-scale beef producers including Niman, Country Natural, and Meyer. Last August, however, the beef supply lagged. This was not an unusual experience. Historically, when pork supplies declined, the company waited patiently until they resumed. Beef, however, is a more popular menu choice than pork. So Chipotle now faced a critical decision: it could accept the diminished supply of all-natural beef or it could replace it with what Winslow called “commodity beef”—that is, factory farmed beef.
Chipotle chose the latter. A month before its influential anti-factory farm video went viral Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells, citing declining supplies of all-natural beef, said in a press release that, with regards to allowing antibiotics back in the company’s beef supply, “we are certainly willing to consider this change.” Winslow made it clear in a phone interview that this change had been considered and a decision had been made. The “short-term disruption” in the supply of beef from smaller suppliers, she said, “has forced us to use commodity beef.” Twenty percent of the company’s beef will now come from producers that typically use GMO-based feed, antibiotics, growth hormones, feedlots, and all the other unsavory aspects of industrial animal agriculture that Chipotle condemns as loudly as anyone else. The company, which insists the change is only temporary, will alert consumers with in-store notices.
Chipotle is a company that’s trying to buck the fast-food norm. It should be commended for doing so. But it must understand that reforming the food system means more than supporting responsible choices. It also means rejecting irresponsibly produced choices—something that a relatively small (20 percent) drop in one ingredient suggests it could do. Having once removed commodity meat from its supply chain, Chipotle should, as a matter of immutable policy, never let it back in. My guess is that patrons would happily accept this stance, as well as the inconvenience that might follow.
To do otherwise is to acknowledge industrial animal agriculture as a viable choice. And when a fast-food chain trying to change the game does that, when it legitimates industrial animal agriculture as an option in the breach, there will be no food revolution. Not even close. If Chipotle decides that, as a publicly traded company beholden to shareholders, it cannot operate without constant access to industrial agriculture, that’s fine. In fact, it’d be perfectly understandable. But then it should stop making ads that suggest otherwise.
For many years I’ve been pleading with investigative journalists with more time and patience than I have to answer a basic question about Chipotle Mexican Grill: how was the company going to fulfill its much advertised promise to source all of its beef and pork from “humane” or “sustainable” farms? I asked the question because I did some basic math and realized that Chipotle purchases 120 millions pounds of meat a year while its largest “humane” supplier is Niman, which employs about 700 farmers. Seven hundred farmers cannot produce that much meat in any given year. So what was I missing?
Last month Chipotle answered the question for me. “Every year we need 20 to 25 percent more of everything,” explained Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “And the beef supply isn’t keeping up as well.” Of course it’s not. It never was.But that didn’t prevent the company from spelling out a greenwashed vision of sustainability and, touting their concerns for animal welfare, ballyhooing themselves into the hearts of those who want to eat fast food while feeling responsible about it, and cashing in on the whole arrangement.
Despite its appeal to serving “food with integrity,” the company is now planning to admit cows treated with antibiotics back into the beef supply. That is, cows from conventional farms. “We are certainly willing to consider this change,” said Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle. Allowing sick animals treated with antibiotics into the company’s beef supply “opens up their supply quite a bit,” said a former USDA agricultural economist.” Indeed it does. More to the point, it allows Chipotle to bask in the glow of a pre-established reputation for sustainability and concern for animal welfare while taking quiet steps in retreat from that mission.
What really weird is that Ells, even as these supply problems persist, continues to pick up his bullhorn and declare to an admiring audience of burrito eaters that “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.” In other words, Ells hopes that Chipotle, in leading the way toward non industrialized meat, will spur other fast food joints to the same. This is weird because it’s impossible. Producing all the animal products purchased by all the fast food restaurants in the country on pasture would be an ecological nightmare. We lack the land and labor and, as production costs rose, it would provide added incentive to factory farms to intensify production. But none of that matters.
Because all this Chipotle gambit is about is words.
One of the goals of “The Pitchfork” is to expand the framework around ethical veganism. In a sense, this expansion of the periphery is an acknowledgement that, not only have certain issues been hashed out to excess, but the message that many of us are promoting in one form or another—don’t eat animal products—is sinking into mainstream thought. It is therefore time to back up and think about the place of veganism in the larger world of food and agriculture. I mention this point because, although what follows isn’t directly related to veganism, it does touch directly on issues that, as we gain traction, may very well be critically important to reforming the broken global food system.
With the possible exception of sugar, coffee has historically created more suffering per acre than any other global commodity. Even with the gradual end of slavery and the colonial contracts that underwrote plantation brutality, the quest to grow enough coffee to keep the world caffeinated remained an agricultural endeavor marked by economic marginalization and chronic exploitation. Today, the legacy endures.
Few grasp this reality as well as Kenneth Lander. In 2005, Lander quit his job as an attorney and land developer in Monroe, Georgia, and moved with his wife and five (now seven) kids to San Rafael de Abangares, Costa Rica. The family settled in a cozy house on a 12-acre coffee farm, a bucolic patch of land where Lander cultivated coffee as a hobby. His lucrative real estate investments sustained the dream, one he compares to the Swiss Family Robinson.
Three years later, the dream turned into a nightmare. The wheels came off the U.S. real estate market and Lander’s investments shriveled. “All my assets were gone,” he told me recently. Not long after uprooting his family and moving to Costa Rica, Lander’s coffee hobby had morphed into his livelihood.
The learning curve for growing commercial coffee turned out to be treacherous. It was, for starters, personally demoralizing—not to mention economically devastating—for Lander to work himself ragged growing a high-quality and heavily demanded product only to collect about 10 cents on the dollar. As matters then stood, he explained, “being a small coffee farmer was no way to make a living.” He reached this conclusion despite having sold his beans through a Fair Trade coffee co-op. Lander quickly acknowledges that the Fair Trade program “set the tone for socially sustainable coffee.” Still, he decided that there had to be a better way to put farmers first. Fair Trade was fair. But, evidently, not fair enough.
Lander’s solution—a company called Thrive Farmers—is a for-profit experiment that suggests a radically more hopeful future for small-scale growers of specialty coffee. The idea behind Thrive germinated when Lander met a fifth-generation Costa Rican coffee farmer named Alejandro Garcia. With his own farm on the brink of collapse in the early 2000s, Garcia had moved to Pennsylvania to work in a buffet-style restaurant. He saved $40,000, stored it in a shoebox, and returned to Costa Rica determined to rescue his farm. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Lander, who was witnessing the demise of his own operation. The two men shared their frustration, combined their expertise, and brought in Atlanta entrepreneur (and friend of Lander’s) Michael Jones, who had recently revolutionized the distribution of medical implants. Together, the men forged a business model that would return 50 percent of coffee sales to the growers (75 percent if the beans are sold green) while giving them control over the supply chain. They began with 400 coffee farmers in 2011. Today they have over 800. “We’re about to explode,” said Lander, seemingly unaware that he already has.
The company’s signature innovation centers on what Lander calls “value chain modification.” Whereas the Fair Trade model is more like an insurance policy—farmers sell raw beans through a co-op and are promised a floor price per pound in return—the Thrive model takes the farmer’s beans on consignment and provides growers a platform to track the commodity as it moves upstream. In this arrangement (unlike with Fair Trade), farmers are invested in the substantial value that’s added after harvesting, because, as the commodity travels to the end user, they retain ownership.
Rather than release raw beans into a moving commodity market, where other interests will add value and reap the rewards, Thrive hangs onto the beans for the growers while overseeing the roasting, packaging, exporting, marketing, distribution, and sale of the consigned product through a vertically integrated and relatively short supply chain. At the point of sale, if roasted coffee is sold for, say, $7.50/lb. the grower will get $3.75. “That’s huge,” says Lander. By any standard, he’s right.
There’s another, less obvious, factor that distinguishes Thrive from the Fair Trade approach. Because Fair Trade promises farmers a floor price, the appeal of price support spikes when the commodity price of coffee drops, thus luring more and more growers into Fair Trade co-ops as the conventional market sinks. As a result, the supply of Fair Trade coffee, which is marked by an inflated price (because of the imposed floor), rises and, because it won’t sell, has to be dumped back into the commodity market. This big bean dump drives down the price of conventional coffee even further, thereby harming poor farmers who are growing for the conventional market. Thrive escapes this downward cycle altogether because its supply chain bypasses the shifting commodity market, prices are negotiated directly with consumers, and farmers are left with higher returns rather than those provided by a market getting worse as a result (in part) of the Fair Trade floor.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the Thrive venture is that it brings the ethics of localism to the heady world of global commerce. In this respect it joins a select but growing trend of streamlining long-distance trade with the intention of enjoining access to specialty goods with equitable and personal relationships. Whether it’s the vegetable trade connecting Chinatown with Honduras or the cocoa trade connecting London and Ghana, producers and consumers, through companies such as Thrive, are realizing that it’s possible to localize the global, and to do so while sipping a cup of virtuous brew that honors those who worked the hardest to make it possible.
A vegan walks into a Starbucks and orders a pumpkin spiced soy latte. Later he discovers that the spice mix contained condensed milk. Understandably, he gets angry, starts a change.org petition for Starbucks to use a vegan spice mix, and makes national news.
Although he had no way of knowing it, he also landed me—the token vegan runner in my running group— on the hot seat this morning with a bunch of highly intelligent runners who wanted me to explain why, in a world of considerable toil and trouble, this spice thing mattered. “Very rich white person troubles, no?” said one friend.
I had to admit she had a point. I mean, getting peeved about condensed milk power in a spice mix at Starbucks is sort of like walking into slaughterhouse and getting angry that they’re not using humane mouse traps. It’s arbitrary.
While I really want to defend the vegan’s right to both transparency and hope in the good faith of companies to do what’s right by animals when the option exists, I can’t help but conclude that this little protest would have been far more effective had the vegan just made a personal choice never to frequent Starbucks again. The petition, and national attention that followed, looked trivial and, in light of the Starbuck’s context, it was.
The petition, however, does remind us that vegans are on the verge of numerical significance. Still, an incident like this might have been handled more effectively if we used our growing numbers to highlight how large food companies routinely sneak unknown ingredients into the food and drinks we purchase. We might have made this more than a vegan issue, but also a public health issue, thereby pulling in more non-vegans to think about our food supply in more critical terms, rather than looking petulant over pumpkin spice.
As I’ve reported here before, there are a lot of interest groups wanting us to start eating horses. Slaughterhouses are cool with it. The Navajo, who are actively rounding up wild horses to sell to slaughterhouses, are cool with it. And now Tobin Harshaw, of Bloomberg News, is cool with it. The headline to his recent piece reads, “Wild Horses: We’ll Eat them Someday.” Warning: you might think it’s from the Onion. But it’s not. It’s “real news.”
All this recent salivation over the prospect of domestic horse meat is being fueled by the claim that western lands are experiencing a “horse crisis.” That assertion recently gained traction when the University of Montana’s Robert A. Garrott published a paper suggesting that “We’ll end up like Australia,” overrun with wild horses. Garrott, whose numbers are being scrutinized, recommends contraceptive programs. But Harshaw has a different idea: “What we really need is to call in the foodies.”
Sure! Let’s eat our way to the other end of the “horse crisis”! After all, he explains, “When traces of horse meat were found in supermarket products in the U.K. in January, many consumers were appalled, but nobody got sick.” Ah, well that whet’s the appetite. His bizarre justification continues: “Opponents say that butchering horses is worse for the environment than killing cows, with more offal and blood runoff. That may be true, but it seems manageable through engineering.” Yes! Engineering! We can engineer a bloodless slaughterhouse!
Oh and this: ”Lifting the bans on slaughtering wild mustangs and introducing them into a well-supervised and humane slaughter program seems the logical way to stop the population explosion and ease the BLM’s cash crunch.” Hmm. So, let’s get everything straight: we’ll promote slaughter so the BLM can get back on it’s feet and continue to promote . . . slaughter.
I wish I could say I was shocked by the stupidity of this piece, and I’m almost reluctant to bring it up and lend it more eyes on the page. But–and I know we know this–it’s important to appreciate how low the bar has been set when it comes to writing about animals in the popular media. This is Bloomberg News, after all, an otherwise reputable source of news that somehow let Harshaw end his piece with this question: “Would you rather have these creatures overwhelming their ecosystem and dying of starvation, or served as tartare with a quail egg at your corner brasserie?”
Is this guy serious?
Last week I posted on Bruce Friedrich’s USA Today piece on lab meat. As it happens, I was working on my own article on the same topic when Bruce’s piece ran. It posted this morning on Pacific Standard’ site:
“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 from the feedlot. With the vast majority of consumers concerned with how animals are raised for food, lab meat has the potential to allow us to have our beef and eat it, too.
On the Bill front, it is no longer possible to post on GMC’s FB page, so no use barking up that tree. Also, a petition asking the college for clarification will be circulated soon, in addition to the email addresses of farm managers.
Bruce Friedrich is excited—actually he’s “ecstatic!”— about “test tube meat.” Yesterday in USA Today, he wrote a spirited and, given the short space allotted, especially informative piece on the prospects of lab-grown burgers and nuggets. There’s certainly cause for cautious optimism on this front (in so far as one can be optimistic about junk food). To quote the most compelling segments of Bruce’s article:
“According to research from Oxford University, lab-grown meat will require up to 45% less energy, 99% less land, and 96% less water than conventional meat. Second, most of the processes involved in meat production today emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases. Oxford scientists say that lab meat would produce 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat.”
“[L]ab-grown meat would be cleaner. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 48 million cases of food-borne illness annually, with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. Many of those come from bacteria on meat, which can be traced to manure, blood, and other forms of contamination. Meat in a lab will eliminate the blood and the manure.”
“Finally, raising animals for food necessarily involves animal suffering, and for more than 99% of farm animals, it involves abuses that would warrant cruelty charges if the animals involved were protected by the same laws that protect dogs and cats. Lab-grown meat will eventually eliminate live animals from the equation entirely.”
All good points that add up to a great article. Where matters get thornier, though, is in the claim that test tube meat is “an animal product that is not the product of an animal.” This is a really important hair to split. What Bruce is saying is that a burger grown from cultured cells will come from cultured cells in a petri dish, not a sentient animal. In this lab-to-table framing of the issue, the meat is not an animal product. But, of course, in a larger framing, a historical framing, all cultured meat will ultimately trace its roots to a sentient animal and, no matter how distant the lineage, will always be an animal product. May as well be perfectly clear about that connection. If and when we eat lab meat, we’ll still be eating animals.
There will, in other words, always be some level of animal exploitation involved in the procreation of cultured meat. The big point, one that Bruce acknowledges, is that there is simply no comparison between the suffering required for test tube burgers and beef burgers as we now know them. The reduction in suffering would be immense beyond measure. It is for that reason that we should actively support the technology—not because it will end our reliance on animal exploitation. Which it won’t. But because it’s better. And perfect—like the fast ball— is boring.
Plus—and this is going to be dark—but the fact that there is residual exploitation involved in the production of lab meat might be, pragmatically speaking, a good thing in terms of getting people on board. As much as I despair in identifying this pervasive psychological tendency, my sense is that many meat eaters recoil at witnessing the brutality involved in getting a burger to the plate but, at the same time, harbor something inside of themselves that quietly gets off on the power differential that made that burger possible. What I’m saying is this: people like the fact that we can kill and animal, grill the result, derive pleasure from it, and do it all with impunity. Don’t ask me to explain why. It’s just what is.
Another quibble I have with Bruce’s take on lab meat is the idea that lab meat, as a technology, is somehow less bizarre than other food technologies that creep people out as being unnatural. Bruce sites GMOs as a counterexample, arguing that lab meat “is not splicing a salmon gene into a tomato or a pesticide into a potato.” First, no tomato has ever been marketed with a fish gene in it and, second, no pesticide has ever been placed in a potato (that’s technically impossible and, more to the point, there are no commercial GMO potatoes in North America—because one retailer, McDonalds, would not risk it). Anyway, lab meat is—as Bruce notes— not like transgenic technology. It is much weirder and, given the nature of genetic mutations, more likely to engender unexpected mutations and cause allergic reactions, etc.
But don’t despair: the fact that we’re talking about a truly bizarre creation—cultured meat—is hardly a deal breaker. True, enthusiasm for “all natural” is on the rise, but by the time somebody figures out how to make lab meat cost effective (and really this is the elephant in the room), we’ll likely be over our back-to-nature fetish, or at least more primed to accept another industrially fabricated product into our bloated bodies. We did it with the Twinkie. Spam. Funjuns. More to the point, we are a species of eaters that, about 7000 years ago, deemed it normal to drink the mother’s milk of a bovine. If we can accept that, I suppose we can accept anything.