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The national conversation that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have so long desired is coming, but not how most people expected.

Some call it “clean meat.” Others call it “Frankenfood.” Call it what you want, but it is meat — chemically and nutritionally — that’s never been part of any animal. A two-day conference recently hosted by the Good Food Institute in Berkeley, Calif., included 7,000 virtual and physical participants and a long list of speakers to discuss its advantages and challenges.

Regardless of what we choose (or are allowed) to call it, clean meat offers exciting possible solutions to some of the biggest scientific problems facing our planet.

It’s a relatively new technology that harmlessly takes cells from animals and places them in a culture, providing nutrients and other compounds that allow them to grow. Once grown, they are stimulated to form muscle protein fibers and formed into three-dimensional structures. Something similar happens in medicine with synthesized human tissue engineering.

Despite growing interest in the clean meat movement, we will not break from 2 million years of eating animals and 10,000 years of domesticating them for food without massive debates. The first is already raging: Should we call it “meat?” Future debates are likely to revolve around the ramifications for the planet.

Some people aren’t ready for it. Livestock in Missouri brings in over $3 billion to the state. At the behest of local ranchers, Missouri law now says that if any plant or cell-based products that aren’t “derived from harvested production of livestock or poultry” mention an actual meat’s name, the imposters could face up to a year in jail. Of course, food manufacturers know that it’s nearly impossible to sell foods without names that consumers recognize.

Even veggie burgers, which have been around for 35 years and aren’t going anywhere, aren’t exempt (nor are other plant-based meat products). Perhaps the law’s backers know that natural meat, poultry and fish face a more substantial threat now.

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Environmentalists might feel conflicted about the rise of clean meat. In the past, many have been in the pro-labels camp, championing organic meats, milk from animals fed on grass and cage-free poultry while opposing antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones. Will laboratory-grown meat have the same stigma as other engineered food?

On the other hand, the average American uses about 1,500 gallons of water a day, half of which is associated with the meat and dairy we consume. A pound of beef takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce (by supplying the steer with grass, forage, feed, and drinking water, plus cleaning and processing it). Clean meat uses 96 percent less water. In addition, animal agriculture is responsible for much of the waste that pollutes groundwater and rivers and for 14 to 18 percent of greenhouse gasses.

Historically, raising animals has led to pandemics, with outbreaks associated with slaughterhouses such as the H1N1 flu virus from pigs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, two out of five cases of people getting sick from food (bacteria, chemicals and viruses) come from farm-raised meat and poultry.

As with any new food technology, of course, there will need to be significant testing requirements to ensure safety, and there will need to be serious consequences for companies that create harmful products.

It’s perfectly natural to be uncomfortable with such a seemingly unnatural idea. But even Winston Churchill predicted it in his time: “Fifty years hence, 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.”

As clean meat becomes more commercially viable, we can expect to see a lot more of these arguments. In the end, the question we’ll grapple with is whether “eating technology” is really any worse than eating animals.

— Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a former director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the Food and Drug Administration.

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