to meat or not to meat, that is the question

The future of meat isn't exactly not meat, at least not yet. But there is one way we could convince at least some people to start eating meat that doesn't come from an animal...


Allow me to declare something that will quickly make the blood of many modern, trendy vegans run cold. Meat is very, very delicious and humans have an innate hunger for it. There’s a good reason why meat prices and consumption are surging upwards across world. When people in developing nations make more money, they don’t rush out to buy more rice or vegetables, but instead, substitute them with meat and seafood. Yes, it’s possible to live and long and healthy life as a vegan if you know what you’re doing and find the right balance of proteins and various supplements to make up for the loss of iron and beneficial fats in meat, but most people will be craving a burger or a steak at some point because humans are omnivorous, and the only way that our bodies know to make up for some vitamin or nutrient deficiency is to hit us with a very strong desire to eat something full of those vitamins and nutrients.

However, there’s really no denying that meat is very environmentally and medically expensive over the long run. As much as I enjoy biting into seared flesh after a long day of work, and as much as I’d love for it not not be true, livestock and fish farming are turning into disasters. We use too many antibiotics which greatly contribute to a rise in antibiotic resistance, coupled with our constant overuse of them in medicine — which is actually a whole other problem — and the amount of water wasted and runoff generated by animal farms is troublesome at best and way out of control at worst. And this is why some entrepreneurs with serious funding behind them have been trying to create meat alternatives in a lab to significantly curtail the impact of cattle farming and help the environment by either making meat a thing of the past, or turning to high tech tools that redefine meat as we know it.

It’s a noble goal to be sure, but as a savvy food critic who was recently sent to investigate their efforts notes, all we have so far is paste that sort of looks and tastes like meat if you empty the contents of your spice rack into the pan when cooking it, and a piece of bio-engineering which wouldn’t look out of place in Star Trek, but with which would set you back $332,000 for just one burger, enough to buy the entire population of Greenland a light breakfast. In other words, we don’t have much to show for it and what we do actually have, will pale in comparison to a steak from a real animal cooked by a professional. And as he opined after dining in an LA eatery on slices of cow, a meal I’m positive was expensed as “research,” the best he can see happening over the next decade is synthetics replacing low grade, mass produced meat…

With work on flavor and moisture, Anderson and Geistlinger will be able to get beyond the cooked-dog-food appearance of the Beast. They might even perfect the Salisbury steak, that staple of school cafeterias, [something] Anderson says he can imagine achieving in his lifetime (he doesn’t mention the school-cafeteria part), or the skinless chicken breast that both men think might not be far down the road.

Now, as some of his critics note in the comments, he’s a food critic worried about the palette of those who’ll be eating these meat substitutes so we can take his prognostication with a grain of salt and safely assume that people would opt for a veggie burger that’s indistinguishable from a real burger and has a quarter of the calories and saturated fat. Fast food chains serving patty after patty of something nutritious and meat-like with significant success would have profound positive implication for the nation’s health and waistline. How much farmland could be returned to nature? How many antibiotics put back on the shelves? Farmers raising livestock would find themselves in need of new cash cows, but we’re not talking about this happening overnight so there are chance to adjust to growing the synthetics’ nutritious components.

But these visions of a less meaty utopia assumes that people will really want to put all this not- meat in their mouths, an assumption that should absolutely not be treated as a given. People loathe the idea of eating filler, or something that’s substituting for what they really wanted, and they sure as hell won’t be thrilled putting something called “engineered muscle tissue” on their dinner plates just based on knowing its origin. They may be curious, but their diet won’t change at the drop of a hat. And on top of this, can you imagine the reaction from the dedicated “anti-chemical” foodies out there? I would try and imagine the Food Babe’s take on this technology, but lacking the desire to smash my head into a brick wall enough times to forget middle school chemistry, basic logic, and human decency, I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Still, despite all that being said, there is a way to make synthetic meat popular and there will be uses for it if we get a little creative. Considering that we still do want to explore space, it would be far more cost effective to grow meat tissue in space, rather than sending it dehydrated at a cost of over $10,000 per pound on a $80 million rocket. Streamlining the current technology to lower costs and increase amount of grown muscle tissue would the the first priority, after which extensive testing on the ISS could tinker with making the results reliable, nutritious, and healthy for humans. Getting the taste right might be tricky since in micro-gravity, everything would be a lot blander than it actually is due to the redistribution of fluids in your body, but since we’re very close to the required meaty taste from bio-engineered muscle tissue already, it shouldn’t be an insurmountable leap. From there, we can bring this manufactured meat back down to Earth for sale with a far more exciting origin story than a sterile private lab. So what do you say, wouldn’t you want to try an astronaut burger? You know, just out of curiosity…

# science // food / foodism / meat / research

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