Welcome to Issue 75.1 of Digestable, your thrice-weekly mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
Today’s news, fermented:
All I’ve got for you today, which seems an appropriate complement to Gabriel’s column, is this zombie plant.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
For some reason I’ve been seeing a lot of thinkpieces pop up on my Twitter about cultured meat, the new-ish industrial project of growing meat in a lab rather than as part of an animal. Articles in The Nation, The Counter, and The New Republic are generally critical of this silicon valley startup industry, pointing out lots of big problems with the burgeoning industry. One of these issues is that the stem cells used to culture meat need to be exposed to specific hormones to tell them what kind of tissues to create, hormones that in most current cases need to be extracted from actual animals. Another is that the bioreactors in which these cells grow don’t just pop out a t-bone steak but a slurry of animal protein that needs to be flavored and amended to make it actually taste like chicken or bluefin tuna. Moreover, a fillet mignon or pork loin from animals is muscle tissue, built through the lifetime of an animal as it moves around and holds itself together, not conditions easily replicated in a big steel vat. But these articles miss a more fundamental flaw in the cultured meat industry, that its underlying promise of “efficiency” is based on a miscalculation.
Cultured meat is one of these startup ideas that has a tough time trying to figure out how to justify its existence. The population of vegetarians, vegans, or flexitarians that would be drawn to eating cultured meat seems fairly small given that people forgo meat for a lot of reasons other than it coming from an animal: not liking the taste, preferring to eat lower on the food chain, religious commitment, etc. The selling point that cultured meat will be cheaper to produce as the industry scales up seems unlikely to happen in the next few years as the cost of high-grade sanitary lab equipment, bespoke material inputs, and skilled labor are pretty high, even with an infusion of startup capital. But, with the increasing visibility of the climate crisis, cultured meat seems to have found a marketable justification by playing up the process’s higher “efficiency” of synthesizing animal protein when compared to conventional industrial animal husbandry. The cultured meat industry wants us to believe that if we switch to lab-grown steaks, forgoing the methane released by bovine flatulence and manure lagoons, we can eat our way out of the climate crisis.
Industrial animal husbandry really is a terribly carbon intensive industry, that much is true. In the United States, chickens, pigs, and cows are primarily raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and fed on grain “concentrates” like corn and soybeans. That grain is grown using synthetic fertilizers manufactured using fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, and irrigated with water from quickly-diminishing aquifers that is pumped out of the ground using even more fossil fuel (check out this blog by Andrew Watson for more on fossil irrigation). Even in Ireland, where CAFOs aren’t a thing and cattle are raised primarily on pasture, these grasses are dosed heavily with fossil fertilizers to increase the amount of animals that can be raised on a single acre. The cultured meat sales pitch is that the animals themselves make inefficient use of all this energy, expending it by moving around, breathing, and having a brain rather than just turning it directly into biomass. But the idea that pigs and cows make inefficient meat-machines isn’t a problem with the animals themselves but one generated by industry.
Before agricultural industrialization, and in landscapes where agriculture has resisted or forgone industrialization, turning energy into meat is only one thing that animals contribute. From helping pull a plow to giving milk, laying eggs, and reproducing, animals are much more than meat factories. For instance, without fossil fertilizer feed, animals forage for calories where they can get them - cows and sheep grazing over fallow acres, chickens pecking insects and seeds out of the soil, and pigs eating food scraps from humans and pretty much everything else they can find. The minerals and nutrients they capture are concentrated in their bodies and reintroduced to the soil as manure - maintaining and even increasing the ability of the soil to grow more animal or human food. Viewing animals as living beings within a multispecies agricultural system rather than meat machines call any claims to their supposed inefficiency into question.
On the other hand, despite its relative efficiency, lab-cultured meat is an incredibly energy intensive process. Bioreactors need to be temperature regulated and sterilized and the animal protein cultures need to be “fed” a steady diet of nutrients, also lab synthesized, to grow. Not to mention the lighting, running water, air conditioning, and other latent energy needs of a factory facility. The reason the energy needs of these labs aren’t brought up is that electricity is generally seen as being substitutable - meaning generation can be switched from coal to solar or wind as needed. Whether or not they’re actually running on renewable sources, it’s easy to assume that they can be. But we can’t really assume that. Major utilities are resistant to generating renewable electricity capacity and electricity from renewables is usually priced higher, meaning that if cultured meat wants to make their product cheap and accessible while still making a profit, they’ll go with the cheapest energy source possible which is in most cases coal. The dawn of a new energy-intensive industry like cultured meat creates larger demand on electrical networks, causing scheduled shut-down of fossil electricity plants to be delayed and possibly more fossil energy capacity to be brought online. This is happening in Ireland right now as enormous data centers run by global tech companies like Amazon are straining the nation’s electricity grid to the point that blackouts are being forecast for this winter. So sure, cultured-meat is a more efficient meat machine but its expansion would only lock our food culture further into an industrialized fossil-dependent energy regime.
To wrap up, lab-grown meat is bunk. It shouldn’t exist, much less be a priority of university research and federal funding. Food is so often seen through the lens of energy efficiency, even Michael Pollan’s “eat food, not a lot, mostly plants” has a strange carbon-diet sensibility to it - that we should ration our intake, not just for our health but for our carbon footprint. But our normal ideas of efficiency are so closely tied to our fossil industry overlords that they can cause us to overlook the most important aspect of food, that it connects us to one another and to the multispecies web that supports us. If I were to revise Pollan’s advice to forgo the idea of efficiency, I would maybe say something like “PUT THE RESIDUE OF BILLIONS OF COLLECTED LIFEFORMS IN YOUR MOUTH! LET YOUR BODY BECOME PART OF THEIR STORIES! COLLAPSE INTO THE EMBRACE OF PLANETARY ABUNDANCE!” I think it has a nice ring to it.
So don’t entertain the idea of cultured meat. It’s not going to save us from the climate crisis and any suggestion to the contrary is an insult to bullshit.