Industrial agriculture is one of the most unsustainable practices of modern civilization. Like water running down an open drain, the earth's natural resources are rapidly dissipating as industrialized farming drives air pollution, water pollution, aquifer depletion, deforestation, rising carbon emissions and the depletion, erosion and poisoning of soils.1
The long-term answer, however, lies in the transition to sustainable, regenerative, chemical-free farming practices — not in the creation of food manufacturing techniques that replace farms with chemistry labs, which is the "environmentally friendly" alternative envisioned by biotech startups and its chemists.
The conventional meat industry in particular has been shown to have a deleterious influence on our environment and climate, giving rise to a number of efforts to bring animal replacement products to market — not just fake beef but also poultry and fish.2
The Price of Fake Food Goes Beyond Dollars and Cents
The Good Food Institute is described as "a nonprofit organization that supports cell-cultured meat startups and sometimes lobbies on their behalf."3 During the first session of TED2019 Fellows talks,4 the institute's executive director, Bruce Friedrich, spoke about the future of cultured meat "grown from cells in bioreactors," noting that the estimated price for these "sustainable meats" will likely be around $50 for a single burger.
In an April 16, 2019, article for The Atlantic,5 Olga Khazan talks about the Silicon Valley startup Just (previously Hampton Creek), and its lab-grown chicken nuggets, which at present has a price tag of $100 per nugget.
Granted, the price of new technology always comes down in time (as noted by QZ.com, the price of cell-cultured meat has come down from a would-be $1.2 million per pound in 2013 to $100 per pound as of this year6), but you really need to question the rationale for creating extraordinarily expensive lab-grown meat when a far less expensive and more reasonable answer is readily available.
What's worse, fake meats may ultimately create more problems than they solve, as laboratory derived meat substitutes are not part of the ecological cycle and health hazards are as of yet entirely unknown. This basic lack of understanding affects regulatory efforts as well.
As noted by Al Almanza, former acting deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we still do not know "what's normal or abnormal, and thus potentially unsafe, in a cultured-chicken plant."7
Without this knowledge, food inspectors have no idea what to look for, companies cannot devise and implement proper safety protocols and regulators cannot make regulations to ensure safety. As noted by The Atlantic, "while Just argues that its process is better, from a food-safety standpoint, than animal slaughter, we only have the company's word to go on at this point."
What's more, while livestock are accused of being a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, what detractors fail to recognize is that this problem is restricted to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) only. Organic grass fed beef production is actually a crucial remedy for our environmental problems, and addresses the animal cruelty issue as well.
Growing meat cells in a lab does absolutely nothing to actually improve the environment, and therefore cannot be said to promote environmental sustainability and regeneration. More importantly, there is absolutely no proof that it's actually a healthier alternative to eating real grass fed meat or pastured chicken.
What Is Cell-Cultured Meat and How Is It Made?
As one would expect with a man-made product, scientists have developed a number of different proprietary ways to grow meat without the actual raising of a live animal. In The Atlantic, Khazan describes her surprise at Just's chicken nugget tasting very much like chicken, albeit without the hallmark "gaminess," and explains the process used to create it:8
"This chicken began life as a primordial mush in a bioreactor whose dimensions and brand I'm not allowed to describe to you, for intellectual-property reasons.
Before that, it was a collection of cells swirling calmly in a red-hued, nutrient-rich 'media,' with a glass flask for an eggshell. The chicken is definitely real, and technically animal flesh, but it left the world as it entered it — a mass of meat, ready for human consumption, with no brain or wings or feet."
If this sounds like mad science to you, you're not alone. Should we really recreate nature without the prerequisite "life" of nature? Fake meat companies argue that "almost all the food we eat, at some point, crosses a laboratory, whether in the course of researching flavors or perfecting packaging," Khazan writes.
Essentially, they're comparing their lab-created meat with processed and ultraprocessed food, which is hardly a healthy comparison if you're claiming to produce something of significant nutritional value that will have a beneficial impact on health! Again and again, researchers have shown that a processed diet promotes disease and cuts life short.9,10,11,12 Can we expect anything different from "meat" that is processed from start to finish?