Archive for the ‘Industrial Food’ Category
“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.
First: take any product on earth and imagine producing a better—but inherently more expensive—version of it. Now imagine marketing it. You don’t have to be a whiz in economics to conclude that your target market will be a relative minority who values that product enough to pay more for a higher quality version. As a savvy producer, you will never lose sight of the fact that the core value of your product derives as much from the higher costs of production as the virtuous connotations your loyal followers confer on the commodity. As a sober producer, you will also never lose sight of the fact that your market will always be a small one compared to the millions upon millions of consumers who will remain perfectly happy with the cheaper mainstream version of the same commodity.
Second: take animal products made from animals raised on pasture and think about their place in the global meat market. These goods are inherently more expensive to produce: nothing you do as a producer to reduce costs will compete with the mainstream version. This fact is due to an inescapable reality: consolidating animals into CAFOs—even when the externalities are considered—is cost effective. The product is cheaper. The reasons confinement is more efficient are numerous: you need less land, you are less reliant on independent variables such as weather, the animals reach slaughter weight faster, you can benefit from mechanization, you can capitalize on scale economies, and so on. Given the costs of production, the price of grass-fed anything will, on balance, always be higher. Whether we’re talking about houses or cows, density pays.
Finally: ask yourself how the second option will ever compete in a mass market with the first. I’m not saying millions and millions of consumers won’t vote with their forks and, recognizing the many benefits (in addition to the product’s quality) of the pastured version, choose to buy it. Good for them. But what I am saying is that the benefit will only be to their consciences, and nothing beyond. After all, with billions of consumers in the meat market, it would defy not only basic economics, but the history of basic human behavior for a majority of those consumers to choose the inherently more expensive version of the same product. That would be the definition of irrational.
Conclusion: those who want to reform the horrors of industrial animal agriculture by substituting the more expensive pastured version of meat and dairy with the cheaper and more efficient industrial version are irrational. There’s no other way to say it. The foodie media that writes glowing articles about pastured this or that under the assumption that this version of beef or pork or cheese is the wave of the future (in addition to animal welfare organizations that promote “humane” animal agriculture as a step in the “right direction”) need to wake up and realize that their fantasy—given what industrial agriculture is doing to animals and the environment—is one we really cannot afford.
Does this mean the end of eating animals? Not necessarily (more on this later). But, for now, we can only conclude that it would make so much more sense to promote the real benefits of saying no to all animals raised for the purposes of selling and eating them, rather than trying to clear an impossible hurdle.
The Pitchfork has long maintained that pastured cows are no answer at all to the environmental catastrophe of beef production. In fact, it may even be worse. Integral to this mission has been the effort to push back against the grass-fed guru Allan Savory, whose rotational grazing fantasies have been nicely packaged as reality and shot into the bullseye of public opinion through that glitzy marketing move known a as a TED talk.
I took on Savory over a year ago here at Slate. The piece made an impression in some quarters, but overall it seems to have done little to dampen the glee of Savory’s absurd thesis that we can save the planet by eating beef. But a piece in yesterday’s Guardian by the popular environmental writer George Monbiot may have the heft to push Savory’s crackpot thesis into the dustbin of bad ideas. The article covers the same ground I covered in Slate but incorporates new research and a phone interview with the Savory to hammer home the fact that the man is loony.
As advocates for animals it is essential that we work to highlight the inherent environmental flaws of beef production, flaws that persist irrespective of the method of domestication or farm size. Of course the Pitchfork is concerned with the end of all animal agriculture, but at the moment the grass-fed hypothesis is stunned and staggered. Apologies for the pugilistic metaphor, but as a fan of boxing I decalre it’s time to deliver this dangerous thesis a knockout punch.
What follows is a very thoughtful response from a reader who chose to remain anonymous. It’s a fine rebuttal to some of my recent posts suggesting that there’s merit in going to Wall Street, getting rich, and giving back. Enjoy. Also, please check out a piece I published in today’s The Paris Review.
This comment is as much a response to this post as it is to the original one.
First I will say, however, that I was disappointed to read your original post. What I appreciate about you and your writing, James, is that (at least it appears to me) while you are an idealist, you’re also a realist and a pragmatist. However, I feel that your post about young advocates focusing on wealth creation and donating their money might be simplistic and misguided.
As someone who works in investment banking (close enough to Wall St.), and has spent time working to earn money and not directly advocate for animals (or to work on other social causes), I can relate to this issue and have struggled in determining the importance of money. I especially appreciate your point about young advocates possibly (but not always) in effect placing their own identity over what’s best for the animals.
You’re correct in emphasizing the importance money can have. After all, what cash-strapped non-profit organization wouldn’t benefit from additional funds to continue undercover investigations, conduct grass-roots outreach (whatever form that may take), print educational materials, etc. At the very least, an influx of cash can relieve the constant financial stress I’m sure many organizations face. Yet, telling young advocates to focus on accumulating wealth is at least somewhat misguided for several reasons.
1. While I don’t have access to the finances of any nonprofits, I wonder how much money do they really need? You could argue that with more money they could hire more people to work undercover, conduct outreach, etc., but if more young advocates are willing to live (comparatively) selflessly, and to live simply, rather then go to work on Wall St., then organizations won’t need all of those millions of dollars. I don’t believe organizations need all that much money. What they really need are intelligent, dedicated, selfless people who are willing to work hard advocating for animals (or any other cause) – as hard as titans of Wall St. work to make money.
2. It takes time to make the big bucks. At least in high finance, when someone is starting out, while she does make an impressive sum of money relative to the majority of Americans (or humans in general), that still amounts to just ~$100,000 starting out and several hundred thousands of dollars of few years in. You start making millions of dollars per year perhaps only a decade in. While someone could certainly live simply during all that time, even if they donated a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars (which would be a SIGNIFICANT proportion of their gross income) every year, that would have nowhere as near an effect as the millions of dollars you speak of (even if dozens and dozens of activists took this path, it would take many animal advocates working on Wall St. to reach millions of dollars in donations, at least initially). Just think how much could possibly be done if these dozens and dozens of activists dedicated their energies and focus instead on directly advocating for animals smartly.
3. Charity and donations are given too much importance in U.S. society (and maybe in all modern society), perhaps because they allow people to enjoy the benefits of capitalism and wealth without having to the do the heavy lifting of advocating for change, all while getting to be affiliated with causes. It’s almost as if charity and donations allow people to buy their contribution to causes and social progress/improvement. I don’t mean to suggest that participants in the Giving Pledge, for instance, or celebrities who raise millions of dollars for various causes, don’t care about the causes they get involved in, but just that the importance given to donations and charity might more reflect capitalist society’s naive, misguided preferences and focus on money, rather than the actual value of donations and charity. Indeed, in a world where cash is king, wouldn’t it better if MORE young advocates decide to use their intelligence and abilities and time to advocate for the powerless rather than just write a check for them? John Robbins of Baskin-Robbins and Diet for a New America fame, is a great example. He gave up buckets of wealth and made a tangible impact.
In sum, I agree that organizations could probably use more money, but they probably don’t need as much money as you think. Money has a way of finding its way to the causes that need it. In my limited experience, I think making money a goal, even if it is to be used to good, is a futile exercise. Don’t go chasing money – money will find you. Even if it’s not millions, it will be enough to continue your advocacy (see: Gary Yourofsky).
If you want to urge advocates not only to think about working for nonprofits, I think instead of telling them to focus on pursuing careers that make the most money, you should urge them to find other ways to help animals. Perhaps they should pursue a career in biomedical or toxicology research, working furiously to find alternatives to animal testing. Or they should pursue a career in law and explore creative ways to advocate for animals through the courts. If they do want to go into business or finance, they should consider taking their talents to meat alternative companies, or to creating and managing endowments or investments for nonprofits (similar to how college endowments are managed).
Lastly, you make a point about advocates in effect choosing their own professional (and personal) identity over what’s best for the animals by choosing not to make as much money as possible and donate it. I take a couple of issues with this. First, it presupposes that advocacy needs a lot of money and that money is the most important thing, things I’ve explained my disagreement with above. Moreover, this point also is not fair, and it works the other way. Don’t hedge fund managers, musicians, actors, CEOs etc. also choose their own professional (and personal) identity – as well as their natural, understandable preference for money and power and fame and personal happiness – over what’s best for animals, or even humans? Let’s not even look at animals for moment. If you’re going to say animal advocates are choosing their identity over what’s best for animals, shouldn’t pretty much everyone else who has the means and capability also be called out for choosing their own identity over helping imprisoned North Koreans, displaced tribes people, and exploited sex workers? I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone choosing their own success over helping others, but I don’t think animal advocates should necessarily be said to be pursing their own identity over truly helping animals. And if they decide they want their identity to be associated with advocating for animals, that’s not necessarily bad. Most other people choose that their identity be associated with other, lucrative, self-focused, self-fulfilling (not selfish or self-centered) professions that don’t directly focus on helping others. Wouldn’t the world be better with more of the former (mind you, I’m not necessarily condemning anyone for choosing the latter)?
Let me wrap up by addressing the issue of money. Maybe I’m just the naive and too idealistic, but money shouldn’t be the focus. Creative methods of selfless advocacy coupled with tenacious, disciplined dedication should be.
In one sense, it’s hard to disagree with Ruth Reichl’s recent Times piece opposing antibiotics given prophylactically to livestock. All the bigwig food guys in the Twittersphere are acting as if the wheel has been reinvented by the article.
In reality, all Reichl says is what critics have been saying for decades: feeding antibiotics to animals creates resistant strains of bacteria. These bacteria can infect humans and make us very, very sick. So, yeah, that’s bad news, but, as the Smiths once put it, “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.”*
Things start to get strange, though, when Reichle advises consumers to channel their inner antibiotic outrage by supporting outlets that choose not to purchase meat raised with antibiotics. Yes, vote with your fork! But such outlets, as she notes, includes Chik-fil-A, a fast food chain that’s as wedded to factory farming as any corporation on the planet.
So while it is true that supporting Chick-fil-A because it’s taking the lead on the antibiotic issue might help end the use of prophylactic antibiotics, such a vote also further entrenches the power of factory farms, thus backfiring on the very cause it intended to promote: a healthier system of agriculture.
Opposing antibiotics is almost always done on the grounds of the dangers they pose to humans. But what about our domesticated non-human friends? What about those creatures that will become, as Reichl—the former Times restaurant critic whom I’m guessing has never spent more than three minutes thinking about animal rights—”a morsel of meat in our mouths”? I think it’s safe to say that consumer opposition to antibiotics means that more animals will get sick on factory farms, and that farmers will thereby have a disincentive to treat them with drugs that consumers don’t want, thus leading to more animal suffering.
Do you recognize the pattern? Consumers want to improve animal agriculture to make it better for humans by making the system appear to be more pure. In so doing, they establish the conditions for further animal suffering. Just like environmental organizations who lack the guts to promote the vegan option as a form of environmental activism, our leading food critics are equally bereft of integrity when they call for reforming animal agriculture without noting that the best option is to end it.
All over a bunch of morsels.
*The Pitchfork is well aware that it has been known to wax redundant every now and then.
Reality can be a bitch. Especially when you’re committed to propaganda. There’s no more common form of agrarian propagandizing than the insistence that pastured cows can save the earth. If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, check in with Allan Savory, who says that pastured cows can save the earth.
While the media, which knows precious little about the dark side of grassfed cattle, is generally happy to reiterate the self-serving and unverified claims of the “grass farmers,” every now and then a conflict of interest emerges to force the adoring media to cough up some truth about the ecological realities on the happy farm.
In this case, the inconvenient conflict came when pastured Vermont dairy cows pooping in pristine Lake Champlain pitted native grass farmers against clean water lovers. Suddenly, with enraged enviros at each other’s throats, the truth emerged from all the shouting: all those cows supposedly primed to save the earth were turning the lake into a cesspool. Find the story here.
The fact that Grist put this story out makes the news even more interesting. Grist’s vision of a happy planet seems to be one with farm animals frolicking across endlessly verdant pastures. It has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the pastured-based revolution. One would more likely expect blood from a stone than an anti-grassfed story from Grist‘s mill. But there it is.
But what encourages me the most about this kind of story making the rounds—and maybe I’m engaging in my own form of fantasy here—is that the inescapably messy logistics of raising animals on pasture, and the pregnant consequences therein, will inevitably present themselves so blatantly that the media, and the general public, will no longer be able to ignore a reality that we have spent so long convincing ourselves to be otherwise.
At some point reality has no choice but to bite back, right?
Chipotle’s recent marketing stunt is so bold—so weirdly bold—I almost want to respect the depth of their gall. Although the company has been under fire for claiming that it serves “food with integrity” when in fact it serves loads of factory farmed meat, it has reacted to the negative publicity by promoting Niman Ranch’s pig guy and Chipotle supplier, Paul Willis, as a man whose understanding of porcine welfare comes from “communicating with them telepathically.”
No joke here.
Or is it a joke? I honestly don’t know. Wayne Hsiung, of Direct Action Everywhere—the organization that has led a brilliant series of protests against Chipotle—wrote the following earlier in the week: “You know a company has gone off the rails when it starts talking about telepathy with its victims. But I suppose when your entire business model is founded on a fraud, there’s not much else you can do.” Or could it be that the company is owning its fraudulence, internalizing its own lies, throwing residual caution to the wind, and saying “what the f***”? Let’s have some fun!” Lord knows their CEOs, who earned $25 million a piece last year, are laughing to the bank.
Joke or no joke, there’s something deeply insulting in the telepathy comment. It’s in the worst possible taste to claim empathy for animals that you purposely kill in order to make burritos. Does Paul Willis commune with the pigs when they are being shunted into the slaughter chute? I doubt it. Hell, even home slaughterers have the decency to do their handiwork under the guise of ersatz gravitas.
I’ve spoken to Willis in the past and he does not strike me as the kind of person to say such a thing. Did Chipotle put these words in his mouth? Who knows? Anyway, if there’s any good news in this stunt it’s that its absurdity suggests desperation. Chipotle is high on its own fumes. But the party will come to an end.
The more I read the rhetoric of grassfed beef peddlers the more I’m convinced that these guys are worse than global warming denialists. They go on and on about the theoretical ecological benefits of fattening cows on grass but fail to offer concrete examples of this endeavor’s systematic success.
They fail to discuss in any depth the impact of methane output, water consumption, overgrazing, land usage, and the ecological costs of slaughter and processing. They avoid the question of demand—how do you feed hundreds of millions of consumers this way? They never talk about what must be done to keep the grass growing (fertilizer) or the land/cattle ration in balance (calves shunted to the veal industry). They fail to discuss what kind of grasses they use (often fescue, which is non-native and harmful for cows) or how much alfalfa they import from drought-stricken California to get their beasts to slaughter weight when the grass dries up.
They simply show us pretty pictures of happy cows on green pastures, say a few words about welfare and sustainability, bash the factory farms, and charge a premium. Too often, ever hopeful that we can have our beef and eat it too, we pay it.
Look at what’s happening in north Florida right now, though, and you’ll begin to see that the dangers linked to the grassfed beef revival are real. The Gainesville Sun reports that billionaire Frank Stronach is planning to spend $60 million to clear-cut pine forests, convert them to pasture, stock them with cattle, and pump in 13 million gallons of water a day to bring the system to life. This move is supported by the American Grassfed Association, which, because it is a trade organization no different than the American Beef Council, is perfectly happy to mouth the conventional wisdom that grassfed beef restores ecosystems and improves soil health. Well, last I checked, native pine forests do that pretty well, too.
What you are seeing in Stronach’s bid to turn the Florida forest into a pasture of profit is merely a taste of what’s to come if the foodie frenzy for grassfed beef continues to rise. Sure, there will always be some friendly hippy farmer at the local market telling you that he does it right. And he might. But as demand spikes for this supposedly virtuous alternative to industrial beef, your local good guy is going to be swamped by the models established by fat cats who have no problem dropping 60 million to have a hobby farm, steal our water, and send animals to slaughter for food that clogs our arteries.
Like climate change deniers, grassfed beef advocates have started to believe their own bullshit. If north Floridians don’t deliver Stronach a dose of scientific reality, there’ll be a lot more of that to spread around soon enough.
Paul Greenberg’s piece on the global seafood trade in the Times underscores vividly the reality captured in the article’s headline: why are we importing our own fish? Although Greenberg never gets around to really answering his own question (the piece simply insists should localize and participate in local seafood–novel!), the answer is easy: we import our own seafood because it’s cheaper to do so. Boom.
Critics of our out-of-control food system don’t get this. They jump at any opportunity to grab a juicy headline* with some bizarre geographical distortion of global trade—such as why we export seafood and then buy it back—in an effort to urge consumers fight the powers that be by pitching their local food tents. What these utopians** fail to realize is that the bizarre manifestations that they so earnestly (and rightly) lambast are the result of the simplest economic logic—a logic that everyone other than the one percenters tends to follow. Again, it’s cheaper. And that’s bad news for locavores, who will have to pay more for local shrimp. Or oysters. Or salmon.
The good news here is that the food system’s global boomerang effect is easily fixed: stop producing food that requires processing. Processing. When you hear that term you think about all that corporate junk food that Mark Bittman and all the food purists lament as the downfall of modern culture. But it’s more than that. Or less. Processed food is basically food that has to be altered before it’s sold. And food that has to be altered before it’s sold is food that enters the churning matrix of the global food trade, a Smithian crucible wherein it’s radically less expensive to have subalterns shuck, smoke, and can your oysters than to pay a federally mandated minimum wage for U.S workers to do the deed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s much worse than a locally-sourced syrupy soda.
Once again, food reformers favor the predilections of their own precious palates—must have shrimp, must have oysters, must have lox on my bagel— over the simple solution that stares them in the face: eat plants. How often do we need to say it? Eat Plants. Plants grown for people to eat generally have the great benefit of not needing to be sent to one part of the world to be manipulated by pennies-per-hour employees before being sent back to “America” to be massively consumed and then lamented in the pages of the Times. When you grow plants for people to eat you box them up and put them on a plane, train, or automobile. People grow and pick it; people cook and eat it. Nobody needs to peel it or smoke it or filet or slaughter it or de-vein it into edibility. The Times’ agriculture writers would only publish good news.
When we demand food that only needs to be grown, and not processed, we’ll not only put an end to the kind of articles that Greenberg (and I) write but, in favoring plants over animals, we’ll radically improve the environment, our health, and the welfare of critters. It’s that god damn*** simple.
*To be fair, this writer grabbed his own juicy headline last March doing the same sort of stunt.
**Yes, I know, calling for a global plant based diet is, well, a bit utopian, but work with me on this one. . .
***The Pitchfork usually eschews profanity, but I’m in a mood.
A vibrant discussion has developed around my recent piece on GMOs, both here at The Pitchfork and in Slate. When people discover that I’m both an advocate for animals and sympathetic for some forms of agricultural biotechnology, they’re often miffed. Vegan advocates are supposed to be crunchy hippies waving the organic flag and foraging for purslane, right?
Well, not exactly. While I get that Monsanto is the Devil Incarnate and that Big Agriculture benefits immensely from the production of GM corn, soy, beets, cotton, and canola, I am also deeply wary of opposing any technology that could be of tangible benefit to the future of an exclusively plant-based form of agriculture. For starters, if we expect 9 billion people to eat a healthy, diverse, plant-based diet, we will need industrial agriculture. The world’s poorest need it the most.
Biotechnology can make the right kind of industrial agriculture more ecologically and economically equitable and efficient. If we want both the poor and the rich to eat a wide array of crops grown all over the world, we must be prepared to develop global food systems that produce a great deal of foodstuffs with as few resources as possible. GM technology might not be a silver bullet, but it’s a tool in the toolbox dedicated to helping plants deal with drought, floods, and the many fluctuations that characterize agriculture in the age of anthropocentric climate change.
As with most matters in life, what’s critical here is management and regulation. With the world’s leading health organizations having declared transgenic technology to be no more or less dangerous than traditional plant hybridization, structures should be put in place to encourage the intelligent and humane application of biotechnology. Will some one profit at someone else’s expense? Yes. Does this disparity have to be egregious? No. More to the point: would anyone have a problem with GMOs if they were used to produce a broader diversity of nutrient rich beans for African farmers to consume and export for human consumption?
I’d love to think we could all live a one straw revolution. But I’m afraid the revolution will have to be more ambitious in scope. I’m seeking a 9 billion straw revolution.