– 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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