I recently sat down with my environmental studies professor, whose interests are local food systems and urban gardening, and asked him what he thinks of when he hears “the future of food”. He said he envisions two futures: one being his “ideal future”, and the other that he believes is more likely. The ideal future “would have more diversified farms… more farm owners, and more people on the land growing food and using animals on marginal lands”. As an environmentalist, his goal for the future of agriculture would be “that it’s not just not doing any harm, but it’s actually improving the landscape” and not just less harmful to the environment, but helping it. The future he believes is more likely to happen, is one where “we’re using more fertilizers and more machinery to grow [our] food because the environment is degrading” and we have continued down the same environmentally destructive track. I then gave him a brief overview of what clean meat is, and asked for his opinion on whether clean meat is a viable option in creating the future of the food industry. Although he agreed it is a potential option, he called it a very “cultureless, soulless” food system which is not a part of his “ideal future”. In his eyes, clean meat is just “another iteration of an overly technical capitalist system” which reduces environmental harm, but doesn’t provide any environmental benefits.
Why did he choose to frame clean meat as “cultureless” or “soulless”? Was he comparing clean meat to our current meat production system or did he perhaps imagine a more romantic ideal of local, urban farms? You know, the type run by young “green” entrepreneurs with iPhones, tablets, and other highly technological gadgetry who sell “soulful” organically raised chicken through internet markets at a premium price and get paid via Venmo. Or maybe he was thinking about the type of organic produce start-up company that turns food “culture” into elite culinary practices reserved for upper middle class folks who shop at Whole Foods. Either way, even the most eco-friendly cute little farm still raises and slaughters animals for profit to feed a small, wealthy population who can afford to eat meat made by a farmer who “respects” the earth and lends a distinctly “artisanal” quality to (still) dead animals.
For the rest of the world, the reality of eating meat looks much different. 99% of meat in the US comes from factory farms, which offer very little respect for both the animals and the workers on these farms. While you could argue that there are respectful ways to consume an animal, even if that is true, I would argue that it will always be more respectful to allow an animal to keep their life. Then there is that persistent notion that meat is a “natural” product even though our current methods of raising animals is nothing but a highly techno-pharmaceutical assembly line process. Disregarding cell-based products under the assumption that they are “unnatural” assumes that the term in and of itself is inherently negative and that is simply not true. In the heat of summer do we turn our backs on air conditioning under the pretense that it is unnatural? Do we refuse to eat bananas because the ones we have today are not natural, but man-made hybrids? Of course not! We embrace new technologies that allow us to enjoy life more comfortably and give us our everyday foods. I would also argue that cellular agriculture is not unnatural in that it takes nature’s core building blocks—cells—and allows them to grow into meat products without any added hormones or antibiotics, and without the need to be slaughtered and processed.
There is that persistent notion that meat is a “natural” product even though our current methods of raising animals is nothing but a highly techno-pharmaceutical assembly line process.
Back to the concerns of my professor, is clean meat “soulless” and “cultureless”? Granted, who am I to say that something is or isn’t soulless? But I will say that clean meat—which is crafted with more precision and care than 99% of traditional meat which comes from factory farms—seems to me like it has much more passion and soul carved into it than traditional meat. I also see how meat is a large part of culture, and rituals like carving the turkey on thanksgiving and eating ribs at backyard barbeques on the fourth of July are traditions that no one wants to see go away. Being a part of a family-owned farm can also be an essential part of someone’s lifestyle and identity, which clean meat threatens to take away. What I would offer in response to this would be that clean meat could eliminate the need for factory farms, while not eliminating traditional meat completely. Imagine the change that would happen if clean meat replaces all the meat consumed at fast food restaurants? I can’t imagine anything more soulless and cultureless than fast food meat production, so at the very least clean meat would provide a healthier, safer, alternative to our modern day fast food burgers.
I also asked my friends what they envisioned as the future of food, but few of them had put much thought into what that will look like. Most of them mentioned a decrease in meat consumption, and hope for more fresh fruits and vegetables in the average person’s diet. After a brief explanation of what clean meat is and the implications of this new technology, their opinions changed and most of them agreed that clean meat is a viable option for the future of food. I received responses such as my personal favorite of “clean meat, let's go!”, but also one person who was skeptical and thinks that “at the end of the day it’s our habits that need to change. We should be changing our own daily lives to meet the needs of the earth instead of changing the earth to meet the needs of us”.
A few years ago my visions of the future were completely cow-less (with the exception of a few happy cows left grazing in the fields at a sanctuary). I imagined a world much more like my professor’s ideal future where everyone grows their own food and we would all be happy, plant-based families that have reconnected with nature. While I can’t say that’s not still a dream of mine, my perspective on what the future of food will actually look like has drastically changed. Now when I imagine the future of food I see rooftop dining above clean meat “breweries”, and people marveling over the wonders of food technology. Because let's face it, the earth's population is continuing to grow, and the only way to handle the effects of this growth is through new technology. As much as I would love to see a vegan world full of nothing but lush fields of green, I now believe that the best way to change our bad habits is not to force everyone to get rid of them, but find a way to make them good habits. Meaning, don’t make people give up meat because it’s bad for the environment, and instead grow the meat in a way that’s not bad for the environment! And that’s exactly what cellular agriculture is doing.
Overall, everyone I interviewed agreed that clean meat is an interesting concept that has very real and exciting implications for the future of food, even if they personally don’t include it in their ideal future. I understand their desire for a world where clean meat is unnecessary, and I have spent the majority of my life thinking the same thing. But somewhere along the line, something changed. It was like a switch in my brain when I realized that if you can’t get the entire world to make the changes our earth so desperately needs, why not embrace the “soulless” technology that could solve all of our problems, or at least use it to buy us more time until we figure out a more realistic “back to nature” solution. Where I lost hope for environmental change through individual action, I regained it through learning about clean meat and new food technologies. We never know what the future will bring, but I feel confident that cellular agriculture will be a pivotal point in creating a more hopeful future for the planet, the animals, and us.