Lab cultured meat isn't beneficial - because food isn't just about us.
July 13, 2023
Have you heard the buzz about lab-grown meat? It seems that’s all some people I know are talking about right now.
I’ve heard the criticism about lab meat from two camps: farmers who are concerned about their livelihood as small growers, and consumers who want to know what’s in their food, and where it comes from.
I share concerns with both of these groups. But I approach the topic from another angle. Primarily, my issue with lab-grown meat is the ripple effect it has upon communities.
The importance of animals
Consider the life of a single animal on a regenerative farm. Let’s imagine our dairy cow, Mamacakes - “Mama” for short.
Throughout the day, Mama is on the move. As she grazes, she tramples and nips plants to stimulate re-growth. She fertilizes the area with her manure. Both of these practices create food. Chickens find bugs and larvae to eat, and manure to spread.
This spread manure reaches microorganisms and bacteria in the soil, deep in the soil. By feeding upon the nutrients seeping down into the earth, they bring food to plants, which then grow, and repeat the cycle.
And because Mama is on the move, she provides only gentle disturbance. Her movements co-exist with, and enrich, the natural habitats of small wildlife. They stimulate the growth of native plants that pollinators and birds depend on.
Do you see the point of this story? Human beings aren’t even a factor at this point, beyond management. We help Mama get from one place to another. We create boundaries to promote gentle disturbance. But in the story of our “food”, we haven’t even eaten yet.
The ripple effect of livestock management
In fact, the story isn’t even really about us. It’s about the world and creatures around us, and the debt we have toward them as we grow food - in this case, milk and calves for meat.
This is where the word regenerative comes from: a type of farming that creates more life, and better life, from its practices.
And growing food this way is good for the community at large: to have a place with rich soil, diversity of flora and fauna, and a source of clean and nourishing food.
And that’s just the growing practices of raising animals on a small farm. Consider the economics as well. On our farm, raising our own animals permits us to run a small business that meets customer needs. We can offer products that are different from what consumers find in the store, and offer significantly better quality and nutrition as a result.
But we also have a ripple effect on our community. We share our food with other small farmers, providing more diversity and revenue for their businesses. We retail through small stores, butcher shops, and restaurants that depend on high-quality food to distinguish their cuisine from chain restaurants or fast food.
What happens when we take this away, and limit production to a lab in a factory?
I would argue that everyone suffers.
The consequences of limited land management
From a biological standpoint, we add nothing to the land, and we do not consider the needs of living things beyond humans through the production of this supposedly better meat.
It astonishes me that scientists fail to see the ripple effect this has upon microorganisms, bacteria, wildlife, pollinators, and soil. If small farms are gone, if livestock is no longer raised upon the land, how will we effectively manage their habitats and provide their food?
In fact, the idea that we will somehow do this more often or better is frankly naive. Outsourcing our food to a laboratory setting will make people less connected with where it comes from, and how we factor in the process, not more invested.
More significantly, our changing climate requires that we rely MORE on animal disturbance, not less. How do we care for open grasslands without livestock? The wildfires in California, my home state, have become so concerning in part because livestock have been removed from the land as development encroaches further into the dry, desert-like valleys. Without consistent animal trampling and grazing, the vegetation becomes overgrown and dry - essentially kindling for a spark.
From a communal standpoint, we remove an enterprise that permits many individuals, on a small scale, to survive. We instead direct that to a single corporation, with investors rich enough to invest in it, who control and benefit from the profits, while those outside of it are left without input or participation.
And what about consumers? There’s no evidence currently to suggest that lab-grown meat will possess either the quality or the nutritional value of meat.
I don’t see how that would even be possible, given the disparities between pasture-raised and conventionally grown food, due to the effects that sunshine, forage, and exercise have upon meat. In fact, evidence seems to point in the opposite direction: it may look like meat or smell like meat, but it doesn’t function in our bodies like meat.
Although I believe the intentions behind lab-grown meat are good, it’s far too narrow of a vision and practice to do any good. Like many innovations in our culture, I find that it relies upon the problems that led to industrial agriculture and widespread destruction in the first place.
We believe that we can “fix” any problems we’ve created with new technology. But caring for the land can’t be solved by outsourcing our food to a factory. That comes through greater human participation in growing and accessing food - and changing our habits or perspective as a result.
We believe that food can be disconnected from the land, and grown solely for our benefit. Such a perspective ignores that we are only one participant in the process of growing food. In fact, I would argue that we are perhaps the least important part of this process.
We believe humans have an inherently negative relationship to the land, and should be removed from it. On our farm, we have a choice with land management. Should we have animals, biodiversity, and a healthy ecosystem? Or 50 acres of manicured, fossil fuel dependent, manicured golf-course-style aesthetic, devoid of life? I know which one we've chosen.
And we don't need to have a "no-human wildlife preserve" to manage land responsibly, either. Proper land management requires humility, patience, and observation. But seeing ourselves as PART of this, rather as inherent destroyers of the earth, is essential to changing our relationship with it.
Learning from indigenous practices has reminded me that food is a gift to us. It’s not grown for our benefit. It’s grown for a host of creatures and living things, and we are a part of that. To place ourselves at the center of the story, and ignore the others, contributes to greater ecological destruction.
Lab-grown meat contributes to the main character syndrome that allows us to destroy and ignore in our pursuit of convenience and pleasure. To be better participants in the natural systems we belong to, to recognize what we should contribute to the place and creatures around us, means seeing ourselves as only part of the story - not the story itself.