are we ready to grow our food in labs instead of on farms?

As official approval of lab-grown meat looms on the horizon, it’s a good time to rethink how we feed ourselves and why we need to make a change sooner rather than later.

burger platter

According to numerous reports, this year, the FDA is set to approve a very special kind of chicken meat for sale. Instead of being the end result of processing a slaughtered bird, it’s muscle tissue grown in a bioreactor. Theoretically speaking, it should have all the textures, flavors, and nutrients of real meat. It should be free of growth hormones and antibiotics, since it was created in a sterile environment. It should be perfectly palatable to vegans because it’s not a product of animal suffering. It would also severely cut down the pollution and runoff from raising livestock if it becomes the dominant source of animal protein for wealthy nations.

You can probably hear the usual anti-GMO, pro-woo suspects having a tantrum about lab grown meat and furiously typing out conspiracy theories about its supposed sinister origins and evil purpose. But that’s par for the course since they do the same thing with vaccines, birth control, and teaching kids about the scientific method, so it’s very unlikely they’ll be able to seriously slow down the adoption of artificially grown proteins over the long term. As it becomes more widespread and millions start to consume it with no ill effects, they’ll have to rely on a rapidly vanishing “ick factor” and painting caricatures of mad scientists playing God to sell their snake oil and placebos.

why do we need artificial meat?

Ironically, embracing lab grown proteins would accomplish many of their stated goals. Without the need for antibiotics and artificial hormones, the meat we’ll consume will help us simplify today’s sprawling supply chains for meat products and control their quality, as well as fight a major vector of antibiotic resistance. These are some of the biggest reasons why we’ve been looking for alternatives to raising large herds of livestock, knowing full well that current trends are unsustainable and already causing immense environmental damage and pose drastic health risks we’re only now starting to acknowledge and make baby steps towards mitigating.

As a result, farms are giving livestock and poultry antibiotics for prophylaxis and to promote growth, and the supply chains to transport the processed meat are fiendishly complex, so much so that he dangers of contamination along the way prompted Canadian regulators to mandate how restaurants serve their burgers. When the protein arrives to your plate, neither you or the restaurant might know where it came from and its actual quality. Meanwhile, the steady flow of antibiotics makes the livestock a perfect breeding ground for superbugs.

At the same time, commercial fishing is devastating ocean ecosystems, especially thanks to the use of trawlers. While it does bring in quick profits initially, it has the combined side effects of shrinking future fish and crustacean catches since the animals haven’t had time or the nutrients to grow, and endangering their food supply and jobs. With more nations industrializing despite the challenges of accelerating automation, demand for meat and seafood is growing by leaps and bounds, so unless we start doing something radically different, the problems we just covered will only get worse.

why not just go vegan and organic?

While according to advocates of the meat-free organic lifestyle we can save the planet and ourselves if only we followed their lead, the truth is that organic crops have significantly lower yields, and avoiding any animal product completely isn’t a desirable or healthy option for billions around the world. Getting all your vitamins and nutrients while avoiding meat, fish, dairy, and eggs requires constant education and attention. While it’s possible, it’s also quite difficult and can easily go wrong, which may be why more than 8 in 10 vegetarians or vegans go back to eating animal protein.

Worldwide, only 5% of the population is thought to be vegetarian at any given time and their numbers are holding steady, even as many in wealthy countries are experimenting with simply eating less meat for health reasons. Couple a diet 95% of the population rejects, and which will be an economic disaster for rural communities in developing nations, with a 20% reduction in yields from organic farming and you’ll end up with fewer greenhouse emissions and healthier soil, but a lot of malnourished people demanding the return of their animal products and more food in stores, sending prices for existing staples upward to the detriment of developing nations.

better meals through science

In other words, while organic and veganism proponents are right about the pitfalls of the current state of industrial farming, their cure simply isn’t workable on the scale we need now, much less in the near future. This is why we need to very seriously consider automated hydroponic farming and lab grown meat as the way forward. Both will require quite a bit of energy and investment in setting them up, but they can combine the economies of scale we conventional methods allow while cutting out pesticides, antibiotics, and damage to arable land and pastures. And that’s not all the benefits robotic and laboratory precision can give us.

Since we will no longer need vast swaths of land to raise livestock and grow crops, we could place vertical farms and meat-growing labs close to or right into cities which will consume the resulting food. Because we no longer need to harvest or butcher, process, then transport the output of all this artificial farming, we can offset the emissions generated by the power plants on which these lab farm facilities will rely. We can also return a great deal of former crop and pasture land to nature, letting forests grow and clean greenhouse gasses from the air.

Additionally, since the supply chains have been vastly simplified, it’s easier to know what’s on your plate and track contamination and other problems — which would be much rarer in the first place since what will become our food is shielded from the numerous outside contaminants — would become a cinch to trace, taking minutes to identify and hours to recall. With virtually total control of the growing process, it would be much easier to prevent a similar contamination and correct mistakes than with an average 442 acre farm. This is not to besmirch today’s farmers. They do a fantastic job of keeping us fed. It’s just that with far fewer variables out of our direct control a lot less can go wrong.

is there any downside to switching to lab grown meat?

But before you think that lab grown meat and vertical hydroponic farms will be a panacea for all that ails the food supply, it’s important to note that it will be immensely disruptive to farmers and rural communities in wealthy nations. Even though agriculture accounts for just 1% of the GDP in America and that number is falling, we’re still talking about nearly a million jobs, along with similar situations in other developed countries. With numerous farms vanishing, today’s farmers will either need to join the labs growing our food and learn how to work with the robots who’ll do the day to day work, or find alternative employment.

Small towns already facing tremendous economic pressures will be even worse off, and without a plan for a proper transition, a plan our leaders keep refusing to make, we’re in for even more political upheaval bound to empower authoritarian, ultra-nationalist, and protectionist politicians whose proposals require nothing less than time machines to have a shot at giving their voters what they want in practice. Luckily, it will take many years for lab grown meat and hydroponic crops tended to by machinery to become commonplace enough to replace conventional farming to a truly significant degree.

We have the time to do it right and come up with a workable plan to avoid massive job losses. And we have the chance and responsibility to do what’s best for both the planet and ourselves over the long term by deliberately embracing new technology according to a well-thought out plan. We’ve been trying to improvise post-industrialization and seeing science fiction becoming science fact, and have nothing but problems to show for it. We need to approach lab grown meat as an opportunity to show how to introduce and adapt beneficial new technology the proper way, with a vision and a game plan. The world and our kids will thank us if we do.

# science // food / future / futurism / organic food


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