On August fifth, 2013, roughly fifty million hamburgers will be eaten world-wide, but one of those burgers will mark a major milestone in agricultural science. For that one burger, which has cost almost a half a million dollars to bring to fruition, will be grown in a vat.
I have been following the work of the New Harvest initiative for some time, as one of the issues that keeps me up all night is the absolutely unsustainable nature of the popularity of our carnivorous appetite. An article in The Independent sums up the problem quite nicely with a set of statistics that should scare anyone who wants the human race to have a future; seventy percent of our agricultural production goes to feeding livestock. Thirty percent of the Earth’s non-ice land area is used to grow food for livestock, and only four percent is used for growing crops that directly feed humans. And this is at a time when meat-eating is still not the norm worldwide. As standards of living rise, the popularity of eating meat has the potential to completely destroy the world’s ecosystems. It just won’t scale up. The only solution is for everyone to go vegan, for population to fall, or for the human race to find reasonable substitutes for animal products that have a lower environmental footprint. Though a nice steak is probably going to be hard to create in the lab, much of North America’s meat consumption involves ground beef burnt grey, chicken goo shaped into deep fried nuggets, and chicken breast vacuum sealed in bags. Vat meat could likely replace all of that meat, at huge environmental savings. And though many of us are starting to eat less meat for health or other reasons, the overall trend is not in the planet’s favour.
Now many of you will be saying “never” at this point, but as I tell my students, it is no more obvious to say “never” to vat meat than it is to say “never” to the factory farming most of us seem to accept. I have toured several factory farms, which even when well run have animals crammed into tiny spaces, and I have observed systems that feed the products of the dead straight to the living, Matrix style. And I’m a person who occasionally eats meat, but I have to say, I would gladly take the vat alternative over the ethical dilemmas created by the industrial system. I will remind everyone that one of the purposes of industrial meat production was to hide the unpleasant parts of the food system from the consumer. Rates of vegetarianism were actually higher in Victorian London than present day London, as many people couldn’t stomach the terrible cruelty that animals of the day endured, right in the city, in front of everyone. Conditions today are actually much better in some ways, but ethically and environmentally, shrinking the animal component of the food system is a requirement. We basically run our economy by keeping billions of non-humans enslaved for our benefit, and I would also say that once vat meat is cheaper than factory farmed meat the majority of people will accept the switch. I also doubt we will really have much of a choice; I would imagine once one fast food chain goes vat, the rest will quickly follow, and we will likely not know the difference.
There are still huge issues to be solved on the road to test-tube hamburger, aside from the obvious technical difficulties. For one thing animal products left over from the factory system underpin much of our economy. Animal waste is used as fertilizer, gelatin from bone waste appears in hundreds of products, bone char is used to filter all sorts of other food products. Animal products appear in everything from paint to car tires, and if the industrial meat industry were to collapse tomorrow through some horrid disaster, our economy would collapse right along with it. There is also a real worry that in a world of billions of people, the rich will have access to elite wild foods, and the rest of us will eat from the lab. Lastly, vat meat isn’t quite vegan friendly yet; it requires stem cells, which still requires animals, but it could reduce the herd sizes by up to 99% or so, freeing much of the planet’s surface for wilderness or other uses.
So in short I would eat vat-grown meat, but at some level it really doesn’t matter. On a planet with billions of hungry and increasingly affluent people, vat meat will replace the industrial animal system, whether we like it or not. And it starts Monday.