Do you realize how close the human race is to being able to produce animal meat products… without killing animals?
It’s true, and it’s a perfect example of the improvement of life through technology. Technology, it’s true, allowed us to capture and control meat-source animals to feed the world, and when combined with the things science had learned about animal husbandry, developed an industry that contributed significantly to the growth of mankind over the centuries. But now we’re on the cusp of a sea change that will prove as significant to feeding the world as animal husbandry did.
This is significant, because today we’re being forced to deal with the holistic cost of keeping hordes of animals for meat production: The cost of feeding and supporting those animals; the medical costs of enforcing growth and health; the environmental costs of dealing with wastes and transporting animal products long distances to customers. We’re also starting to come to grips as a society with the moral implications of meat eating itself, the horrendous reality of factory farms and the slaughtering of intelligent animals in order to put food on our table… something that our ancestors had to do with survive, but in today’s world we can say isn’t as much of an absolute necessity.
The Bong Joon-ho movie Okja explored the ultimate development of the so-called “perfect food animal”; but it also dealt with the moral implications of creating intelligent animals destined for slaughter. Admittedly the movie was more a satirical look at the future of feed animals; but the good news is, before we get to the world of Okja, we’re poised to have technology take us in the opposite direction.
Most of us are already familiar with the “almost-meats,” vegetable-based mixtures intended to simulate certain meats. Veggie-meats come in varying degrees of complexity, from the simple use of tofu in inventive cooking methods, to highly-complex mixtures that emulate specific meats. These products have seen a growing acceptance, especially from vegans and those seeking to cut back on the fats and related elements of real meat. For many, these can be considered the middle ground between animal-based products and the next level.
That next level is being developed now, thanks to a deeper understanding of the elements that make up meat products. Part of the next level is being brought to us by laboratory processes, the cultivation of the basic elements that make up animal products; the proteins, enzymes, bacteria and familiar chemical processes that serve to create the same animal products without involving the animals themselves. As other companies find similar ways to make animal products, we’ll eventually see a reduction in animal use to make the same products.
Next up: Cloning. Companies are experimenting with taking samples of animal meats and using cloning and laboratory techniques to grow the meat cells on artificial scaffolds that will form tissues similar to the natural muscles on live animals. If these “cultured meat” techniques work out, they’ll be able to recreate versions of any animal tissue, allowing people to eat meat without killing a single animal. Some of the first uses could be products like veal that users avoid due to the particular cruelty involved with the preparation of such meats.
We might even see experimentation that will create new versions of meats and animal-based products… designer meats, cheeses, milks, etc, unlike anything that an animal can provide. A hundred years from now, there could be a new cultured meat with a completely unique and distinct taste, with a low but flavorful amount of fat and a pleasing combination of included flavor notes, that could be the most popular meat in the world. (Hopefully no one will call it McRib.) In fact, someday the meats we know today, taken from real slaughtered animals, may be the least known meats to modern populations.
There will probably always be meats from live animals, maybe considered delicacies by by consumers in the future. But hopefully, as our food production technology takes us forward, the increasing ease of producing cultured meats will far outshine slaughtered meat in the future, and give us not only environmental and financial benefits, but moral improvement, as we kill and eat fewer of our fellow animals on this planet.