Disembodied Meat: Really, WHY?

Posted on August 9, 2013


After some thought about it, I’m on the “con” side of lab-grown “cultured beef.”  At least for now.

On Monday, there was a public taste-test of a $330,000, lab-grown, cultured beef burger.   By all accounts, it did not seem to be revolting, but it was also… lacking.  A little crunchy, a little bland, “almost” like meat, but… not quite.

To be fair, this was only a prototype of sorts, a proof of concept.  There are some attractive considerations to growing disembodied burgers in the lab: the meat could be “raised” faster, using fewer natural resources, and would not require animal slaughter (and let’s ignore the initial costs and assume that mass production is in full swing, so people are not paying six figures for these lab-burgers).

On the other hand, we humans seem to have a spotty track record when science starts tinkering with “improving” our food sources.  Many of today’s crops, pound for pound, are less nutritious than those of fifty years ago.  Scientists can’t agree on the value of common foods that we eat; we have all seen the conflicting good-for-you, bad-for-you scientific recommendations on various foods, enough that we quit paying attention.  The shortcomings of the prototype lab-burger are acknowledged; it may not contain much iron, it contains no fat at all (fat is essential for vitamin absorption), and the material was actually colorless – not very appealing.  Clearly, some additions and adjustments are required.   And yet, our scientists can’t even seem to put together a complete nutrition package in pet food; what makes us think they can engineer complete human nutrition in a lab?  And why would they want to?

Here’s why:  Sergey Brin, who funded the research that made these disembodied burgers possible, reasons that the world needs a way of producing meat that will be less demanding on resources:  “There are basically three things that can happen.   One is that we all become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s really likely.  The second is we ignore the issues and that leads to continued environmental harm; and the third is that we do something new.”

This argument falls squarely into one of Lila’s peeves:  people who keep trying to feed an ever-growing human population which has already far exceeded any reasonable expectation of sustainability.  The real solution to saving the environment, to restoring our plummeting water supplies, to providing clean water and nourishing food to everyone, is:  fewer people.

Any hunter, park ranger, or wildlife manager can tell you about the balance between animal populations and their food sources.  If there are too many animals and not enough food, the population shrinks by starvation or malnourishment.  If food is plentiful, the animal population increases.  Important note:  the animal population will continue to grow so long as available calories continue to increase.  It really is as simple as that.   Unfortunately, available calories cannot increase indefinitely.  Eventually, a crash will come, and the more out of balance the system is, the worse that crash will be.

The complexity of our own food supply chains blinds us to the stark fact that we, too , are absolutely in a closed system.  We are more manipulative than other species; we greatly increased our available calories with the use of intensive fertilizers starting in the mid-19th century, and our population growth has never looked back since.

But nothing is free.  We failed to see that we have been depleting the soil, overdrawing our water supplies, exhausting the resources we use to make the fertilizers.  Again and again, with ever more human lives at stake, we turn to science to save us, and we grow ever more distant from our naturally evolved state which – having progressed right along with everything else on this planet – was pretty well adapted to take advantage of existing, naturally occurring foods.

The bottom line is this: it is never possible to feed the entire world population.  Part of the problem is distribution, whether due to poverty or war or localized crop failures or transportation issues.  But increasingly, the problem is also due to simple over-use of resources due to simple over-population.  Exactly like what happens in a wildlife management area.  Food production cannot keep up with population growth forever, no matter how inventive we may be.  The best food for people is naturally occurring food.  If there is not enough of that, then there are too many people.  Period.

Engineered, disembodied lab-grown burgers are scarcely even a Band-Aid against the sheer scale of the resource depletion we – or our children  – are facing.  Sergey Brin might be better advised to fund worldwide education, female empowerment, and birth control, factors which all contribute to population stability – and social stability.  More on that in a future article.