The road back to nature is artificial

– how clean meat can help restore our bodily and planetary health

By  Ingvild Syntropia


‘We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.1’ – Winston Churchill

In the December 1931 issue of  “The Strand Magazine” there was an article by Winston Churchill titled “Fifty Years Hence” that  presented many speculations about the future, including the above quote. Churchill had already then realized  the highly inefficient way we produce food  from animals. Many people still find the thought of eating meat grown in a lab unnatural, dangerous and even  disgusting. However, there is nothing natural, safe or pleasant about the way we are currently producing the vast majority of our food from animals. Behind the happy cows and the rustic farmer smiling towards us on ads and products, there is another reality that once seen is hard to unsee. It is high time we challenge the rationale and  practices of  the petrochemical  agribusiness  and switch to more ethical, efficient and sustainable ways of producing food, if we want a thriving future for all.

In this article I will briefly explore how food technology can be a vital tool to restore nature’s and our own health.

Toolmaking has been a  defining element of  homo  sapiens ever since our ancestors shaped  their first fire pot  to keep their precious flame alive. We shape tools that in turn shape us. One tool that is in critical need of an upgrade, is the way we grow and produce food.

While some environmentalists argue that technology got us in this predicament and therefore cannot get us out, others contend that technology is essential  if  we are to solve our environmental (and other) challenges. I view  technology as a tool that can be used and abused, and not inherently good or bad. It  is the values and  sociotechnical  imaginaries of each society that decides whether  the hammer is used to build an agroforest or a factory farm.

After Churchill’s time, there was an unprecedented production increase in agriculture due to the invention and widespread use of fossil fueled machinery, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and genetic modification of animals and plants. In terms of output these new tools seemed like a triumph.2 However, it has become abundantly clear that this way of doing agriculture is not sustainable: Excessive use of water and land3, pollution from animal manure4,  pesticides5, herbicides6, nitrate7 and phosphorus8, depletion of topsoil9, monoculture that destroys biodiversity10, methane and carbon emissions11, destruction of forests and wildlife habitats12, displacement of indigenous and other marginalised people13, exploitation of farmers14 and the 70 billion15 animals suffering and dying in factory farms annually. These grave consequences paired with the challenge of feeding a growing population and mitigating the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, means we have a gigantic task at hand.

There are some very promising developments happening that  do not wreak havoc on our bodily and planetary health within the field of  regenerative agriculture  and food  technology. For this article I will focus on the latter.

Within the emerging field of  food technology, the two main branches of clean food  innovation are cultured meat  produced  by  in vitro cell culture of  animals, and plant-based  products that mimic the taste, feel and  texture of animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy. Examples   that  have  already been commercially  successful  are  the  ImpossibleBurger and Just Eggs. Cultured   meat  for  example from Dutch food  technology company  Mosa Meat, is  still  being researched and developed, but they hope to introduce their first products to the market in the next few years.16 These pioneering food products are proving that one can make healthier and just as tasty products at a competitive price, while using substantially f e w e r  resources and not having to inflict pain and death on animals.17

There are several scientifically proven advantages to clean foods compared to conventional animal products:

  • Better human health: Numerous peer-reviewed large-scale studies have shown that a whole-food plant based diet is superior to omnivore ones in terms of life expectancy, reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases and some showing overall improved physical and mental 18
  • Resource Efficiency: A  plant  based  diet significantly  reduces  pollution, waste  and  the amount of resources and energy needed to produce nutritious food compared to an omnivore 19 This is in part linked to the inefficient conversion ratio of calories from plants going via an animal instead of going directly to a human. For example ’…farmed animals have a caloric
    conversion ratio of 10:1 or more. For every ten calories of  food we feed animals, we get at most around one calorie of meat in return. And for every ten grams of plant-based protein, we get at most two grams of animal-based protein.’20  If we instead grew food directly for human consumption we could in principle have a 70 % increase in available food calories, ‘… which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth).’21
  • Eliminates factory farming of animals. ‘Tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, live and die on an industrial production ’22 The current common practice that probably will  cause  future  generations to react in shock and disgust, is our treatment of animals. The vast majority of  farmed animals are  kept  in large numbers in very small places, without any means of living a life in accordance with their natural needs. This combined  with  inflicted  psychological and  physical pains such as mother and child being separated, constant pregnancies, pigs’ tails and balls cut off without anesthesia and the tip of chicken’s beaks burned off, could well make it one of the worst atrocities of our time.23
  • Eliminates suffering of slaughterhouse workers: Compared to other industries, the workers at a slaughterhouse often have fewer rights, lower pay, more accidents and are more frequently being treated for PTSD caused by working in a stressful and desentizing environment. There have  also been  several  rigouros  studies  showing  that slaughterhouse employment  increases  total arrest  rates  for  violent crimes, rape, and other  sex  offenses  in comparison with other 24
  • Reduces biorisks  and  antibiotic  resistance:  Factory farms, (bush) meat markets and also the growing international  transportation  of  livestock,25 are a recurring source of new viruses mutating and spreading, (e.g. bird flu, swine flu, HIV, Sars  and  possibly  Covid-19) caused  by keeping  live  animals  in  unsanitary and close In  order  to  keep  animals alive under  the extreme conditions of factory farming, the need for antibiotics is widespread and intensifying, increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans, where for example a previously treatable infection could become deadly. The World Health Organization has declared antibiotic resistance  to  be  one  of  our  greatest  global threats  to  health, security, and development.26
  • Climate change: ‘Approximately 25  percent  of  the  globe’s  greenhouse  gas  emissions come from  land clearing, crop production and  fertilization, with animal-based food contributing 75 percent of ’27 Factory  farms  contribute  to  between 14.5% – 18%  of   total global  greenhouse  gas  emissions, more  than  all  transportation  combined.28 If  we switched  to  a  plant-based  or  low-meat  diet, we  would  cut  greenhouse  gas   emissions related  to  food  production  by  56%.29
  • Aids restoration of  biodiversity  and  wildlife  habitats: Only since 1970, humans have caused the extinction  of  60 % of  all  mammals,  birds,  fish  and  30 Ensuring biodiversity and wildlife is not just about the irreparable loss of species, but also to safeguard our very existence.31 Many  prominent  scientists  claim  it  is  an  equally  big threat  as  climate change.32 The  greatest  cause  of  destruction  of  natural  habitats  is  to create  farmland. Killing  for  food  is  the next  biggest  cause,33 while  the  oceans  are massively  overfished.34

Considering  the  overwhelming  facts, we have run out of excuses  to not  take  animal  and  human suffering, biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change seriously.

However, letting these tragic and terrifying realities sink in and lead to constructive action is a hard and rare occurrence for most people. We are ridden with cognitive biases that are so embedded in our culture, like  carnism, that makes it difficult to realise that the facts expose one’s paradoxical values. For example, ‘47 percent of U.S. adults say they “support a ban on slaughterhouses,” even though only a tiny fraction of them are willing to go vegan themselves.”35

We are also highly influenced by our social context, and find it hard to see the interplay between what you have for breakfast and its ripple effect on the world outside your kitchen window. If people around you whom you love and respect also had bacon and eggs this morning, surely it can’t be that bad?

I was guilty of this discrepancy for my entire childhood and adolescence. Even  though I had twenty five animals in my care growing up, ranging  from ducks  to donkeys, rabbits and parrots, being very fond of  them and not letting anyone harm, let  alone  eat  them, I ate meat daily without  realising that the lamb chops came from an individual just as sentient and cute as Nathalie the lamb I had bottle-fed and cared for all summer.

Some people realise their faulty logic sooner than I did, but many are so devoid of any relation to animals and the natural world that they don’t feel bad that animals are slaughtered for their fleeting gastronomical pleasure. That is why systemic and cultural change is needed, in other words, how  we get our ‘meat’, rather than relying on individuals to adjust or forego their craving for meat. According to psychologist and Nobel  Prize winner in Economics Daniel  Kahneman, when you want someone to move from A to B in terms of behaviour, you can push them, or you can ask: ‘Why aren’t they doing B already?’ This concept of behaviour as an equilibrium between opposing forces advises that you should not push, but rather work on removing the restraining forces.36

Many people are finding it hard to switch to a plant based diet, either because of the aforementioned cultural pressure, lack of interest or knowledge on how to cook with plants or lack of good plant produce where they live. I remember thinking before I stopped eating meat that food would be so boring without it, that the rest of the plate was just extras, and the piece of flesh was the protagonist.

This is why clean meat, dairy and eggs offer such a unique and important  solution: it gives the familiar sensory satisfaction without any of the mentioned drawbacks. It removes the nostalgic, sensory, social and practical  barriers associated with a plant based diet and gives people a chance  to  ease into a new and healthier way of eating.

As it is a new field within food technology, which in itself is a new field of science, there is still room for improvement in terms of mimicking the texture and taste, and also to ensure that the ingredients are nutritionally superior and ethically sourced. However, even in its infancy, clean foods are remarkably more ethical, resource-effective and healthier than conventional animal products.

Given the overwhelming evidence that eating meat is bad for the planet, for our fellow creatures and ourselves, is it too much to ask to initially get used to a slightly different taste? Is your fleeting pleasure worth all this pain and making the planet an impoverished place for future generations?

It is easy to forget, within the thin, yet convincing layer of civilisation, glued to screens indoors most of the time, that we really are a part of nature – although current events have poked some holes in this membrane. We suffer from a loss of and relation to nature and how it supports us, both physically, mentally and culturally, and how our individual and collective actions affect our entire ecosphere. Clean foods together with regenerative agriculture, (which I will discuss in another article), is in my view the best solution we currently have to break this dangerous illusion of separateness.




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