In my last post, on James McWilliams’s Eating Promiscuously, I mentioned that when it came to the subject of eating clean or in vitro, meat he seemed to dismiss it’s potential out of hand. I found that stance rather surprising because I was also reading Clean Meat, by Paul Shapiro, formerly an executive with the Humane Society of the United States.
Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, asks us to imagine a world, where the meat we eat, doesn’t come from animals raised on farms, but rather is created in laboratories. The book is primarily a history of the developments in a new and potentially lucrative industry. Throughout the book we are introduced to figures who are attempting to find new and cruelty-free ways to feed the planet.
On one level this seems to be the stuff of science fiction. In fact as I was getting started on writing this post, a friend of mine posted on Facebook, a Thanksgiving meme based on Star Trek, and the replication of food. This is the way people tend to think about ideas such as clean meat. However, the future is a lot closer than it appears, and Clean Meat gives us a glimpse as to what that future might look like.
The first thing that stands out in the book, both in the author’s attitude and the attitudes of the people involved in attempting to bring clean meat to a table near you, is that almost all the participants are motivated first and foremost by the amount of cruelty inflicted on animals in our pursuit of eating ever more meat.
Each chapter features the story of an individual who for one reason or another has found themselves moving into the world of Clean Meat. One of the interesting notes in that many of the cases, the people who moved began in the field of medicine, but felt that they could do greater good by getting involved in clean meat.
A second thing that stands out is that many of the people involved in the industry are also committed to finding ways to make the food we eat healthier as well as more abundant. As Shapiro points out throughout, one of the advantages of clean meat is that it eliminates much of the waste material(fecal material, pus) that makes it into the meat we currently we buy at our supermarkets.
As so many of the people involved in producing clean meat come from a background of eating a vegan diet, there is a strong emphasis on finding material that makes no use of animal materials to create the meat. This involves activities such as sequencing and splicing DNA and creating growth mediums(serums) that use no meat. In this respect they are very similar to brewers creating beer. The chief difference is that beer uses preexisting natural elements, while many of the elements going into creating clean meat are themselves lab created.
As Shapiro chronicles this history it’s clear that there are several hurdles that will have to be cleared before clean meat can become a reality as our main source of protein. Among these are the fact that plant based protein is currently ahead of the curve in comparison to clean meat(having tried the Beyond Burger offered at A & W, I would say that plant based burgers on not very far from replicating the flavour and texture of beef burgers).
Shapiro also points out that while we are still a distance away from clean meat being a viable option we are moving closer to lab created egg whites and dairy products taking a full place at our dinner tables. Imagine milk that tastes like cows milk, but has had the lactose removed.
Another thing is whether or not clean meat can scale up. In relationship to scale, is whether or not clean meat can come in at a price point that will make it competitive with farm produced meat? Can it overcome the necessary regulatory hurdles? Finally, and most important is the question of perception.
Perception is probably the biggest battle that clean meat faces a the present. There are those who simply feel it is unnatural. There are those who have a distrust of anything created in a laboratory(although as Shapiro repeatedly points out, much of our food is already produced that way). One example Shapiro gives of this is how rennet is used in creating cheese, which in some cases is already being made using synthetically produced genes.
Then there is the whole question of whether or not we are “playing God,” in our creation of meat from genetic material. We might think so. However, as Shapiro notes we do that an awful lot in our medical technology(think non-human knee and hip joints, as a case in point).
One area that stands out as far as perception is concerned is the number of voices in the food world who are opposed. When prominent food people such as Marion Nestle speak out against clean meat, and organisations such as the Consumers Union stand in opposition to clean meat, it’s clear that there is an uphill battle. Shapiro does acknowledge that fort many people there is a certain ick factor in eating clean meat. Although, as he also points out, the ick factor tends to be greater among those people who don’t already consume much meat.
This is especially true when we consider that the Consumers Union has been at the forefront of food safety issues, but doesn’t seem to be willing to get on board with a method of producing food that appears to have great safety benefits over an against our current food production models.
Another area that stands out as a potentially problematic is that the production of clean meat involves genetic modification, and despite the evidence being that genetic modification is not a safety issue, many people still don’t trust them.
Despite that, the book suggests there may be many advantages to introducing clean meat into our diets. One of which is, it may provide is with a way of not only feeding ourselves, but also our pets in a way that doesn’t require anywhere near as much animal matter as we currently do.
This is one place where I think McWilliams may be missing the boat on clean meat. One of the points he makes about industrial agriculture is that it relies so much on soy and corn and mono-culture. Since clean meat would drastically reduce the need for both soy and corn, as feed supplies, we would be able to better able to use the land in diverse ways. Just imagine is land currently dedicated to soy and corn was turned over to reintroducing largely forgotten varieties of apples, as just one example.
As mentioned above, clean meat appears to offer the possibility of reducing the possibility of air-borne disease in our food system. We may also get longer shelf life out of the meat that is produced through the laboratory, thereby increasing the possibility that we are to reduce our food waste.
On the flip-side to the question of food safety is that all the producers of clean meat are small startups aiming to break into the market. What will happen when the big producers get involved. Will they start cutting corners in food safety in the same way they do with slaughterhouse cleanliness and sterilization?
One other thing this book doesn’t address(and I don’t see addressed in most of the places where I read about replacing animals with plants), is: What happens to all the animals that are currently being raised for slaughter. If we suddenly turned loose, millions of chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows, what would happen to their numbers? Would we need a one time cull, or would we leave them to their natural predators? If left to their natural predators, would that see a great increase in the number of predatory animals in the ecosystem?
The bigger question raised for me however, is: What resources are going to be wasted and worn out by using this method of producing meat as opposed to putting our efforts into reducing he amount of meat we eat. The incubators, laboratories, and factories will all require raw building materials, energy, and other inputs. Will clean meat simply move us from over using one set of inputs to over using others?
Another question that remains, from my perspective, is would I or wouldn’t I, eat clean meat. My answer would be yes, at least I would give it a chance. It does seems to be a better alternative to plant based meat substitutes. You may disagree with such a notion, but I recommend that you take the time to read through Clean Meat with an open mind.