Friday, July 30, 2021

Feeding the World Without Meat


Americans will eat about 2 billion chicken nuggets, those reconstituted bits that are left over after the breast, legs and wings are lopped off the 9 billion or so factory-farmed chickens slaughtered in the US every yearbillions of genetically indistinguishable chickens live and die in squalid misery in supersized facilities designed around high efficiency and low margins. Three major processing companies – Tyson, Perdue and Koch – control the majority of the US market for chicken meat. The industry either functions as a quasi-monopsony, with a small number of buyers imposing prices and conditions on producers, or in some cases is vertically integrated so that Big Chicken directly controls most of the supply chain.

Chickens had not previously been a staple of the American diet, but they proved to be particularly well suited to industrialisation because they reproduce quickly and their size and egg-laying capacity are easily modified through breeding. Meat companies set about creating a market for chicken meat through relentless advertising campaigns, and the factory-farming model soon spread to pigs and influenced the development of ever-larger indoor factory farming for cattle. 

This gives the industry tremendous economic power over farmers, workers and consumers. Farm owners on contract with major processors are forced to compete so hard against one another that many are lucky if they barely break even. Chicken processing is gruelling, low-paid, dangerous work on high-speed slaughter lines that kill 140 birds a minute. A 2015 Oxfam report on the industry told stories of workers forced to wear nappies on the line because they were denied toilet breaks, and of others crippled by repetitive motion injuries. Meanwhile, chicken giants including Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride recently settled nine-figure lawsuits for price fixing brought by supermarkets, restaurants and individual consumers. The size and wealth of these companies have also given them remarkable political heft. One of the most potent recent examples of this came in April 2020 when, at the industry’s urging, then-president Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep abattoirs open, even as thousands of workers fell ill with Covid-19.

Chicken nuggets are of dubious quality and not even primarily meat, but mostly fat and assorted viscera – including epithelium, bone, nerve and connective tissue – made palatable through ultra-processing. Chicken nuggets are emblematic of modern capitalist bite-size food that extracts as much value as possible from nonhuman life and applying human labour to transform flesh into a homogenised form. Capitalism keeps the price of meat artificially low by operating at huge economies of scale and shifting the costs of this production to people, animals and the planet. The meat industry deforests the land, releases hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, creates terrible working conditions at abattoirs, and necessitates abhorrent animal treatment on farms, all while engaging in price-fixing, lobbying for environmental and labour deregulation, and pushing for unconstitutional anti-whistleblower ag-gag laws.

The problem is that most people enjoy meat, and global production and consumption is growing with little sign of mass vegetarianism on the horizon, despite meat-eating being obviously detrimental to the environment. It is a diet that is politically and socially entrenched. Our current animal farming policies and practices do immense damage to the planet.

Americans spend just under 10% of their disposable income on food, among the lowest rates in the world, and eat a whopping 122kg of meat each a year, including 55kg of chicken. The UK numbers are at about an equally unsustainable 80kg of meat per person, including 32kg of chicken. Cramming animals into factory farms and clearing land for more feed crops has increased the likelihood of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as swine flu, avian influenza or Covid-19. The system disables and kills even more people through non-infectious diseases: in the past 60 years, changes in diet have contributed to extraordinary increases in the number of Americans with obesity, diabetes and heart conditions.

Vat-grown cellular meat substitutes seem to offer a potential technological option that could eliminate much of the damage the food system causes, without requiring consumers to give up meat. The entire animal kingdom is ready for replication. Optimists see a future of widely available “clean meat”, as ecologically and ethically superior to the original as solar power is to coal. 

There was nothing predestined about the forces that drove the food system to ever-intensifying mechanisation, labour exploitation and environmental ruin in the past century; it happened because of economic choice.  The whole food industry is a profit-led drive for ever-increasing efficiency, resulting in a proliferation of agricultural policies that, in the USA in particular, with innumerable government subsidies, but with much less any labour or environmental regulations. The whole system has been engineered primarily for the benefit of the owners of farmland and huge agribusiness firms to accumulate capital at the expense of the public.

Meat companies such as Tyson and Cargill are not philanthropic enterprises feeding the world out of the goodness of their hearts. The liberal progressives propose breaking up the food giants and downsizing or diversifying farms by applying anti-trust legislation.  Breaking up big operations could simply generate more smaller factory farms.  Building a system around small farmers engaged in more holistic practices, that are more environmentally sustainable, protect jobs and keep local stores stocked with juicy heirloom tomatoes and humanely raised beef and that is economically viable simply is not feasible under capitalist conditions. Experts as a response to the ongoing ecological crisis on the environmental impacts of the food system concur that we need to eat much less meat and propose vegetarian and vegan diets as solutions. However, people don’t want, can’t afford or don’t have access to organic, free-range, farm-to-fork meat and produce.  Therefore, that leaves litte else except outright bans on factory-farmed meat and government edicts on diets which is, is a political non-starter.

Lab-produced meat can produced chickenless nuggets echoing an observation in 1931 by Winston Churchill that technology would one day allow humans to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.

It is all actually a fairly straightforward process. 

It begins with stem cells, usually harvested from live animals via biopsy. The cells are placed in a bioreactor – a temperature- and pressure-controlled aseptic steel vat filled with a nutrient-dense growth medium that is basically a broth of sugars and proteins. Under these conditions, the cells proliferate and differentiate to form tissue. Fresh from the bioreactor, you’ll have an edible, if not yet appetising substance called “wet mass”, which must then be processed in various ways to produce nuggets, ground beef and so on. Mimicking more complex cuts of meat – a filet mignon, say – requires additional techniques, such as growing muscle and fat cells on “scaffolds” made of a material such as collagen. It’s structural engineering, but at a microscopic level.

This technology uses far less land and water, and have a smaller carbon footprint, than beef and dairy. If powered with clean energy they could have less environmental impact. Cellular-manufactured fish could have even greater ecological benefits, through relieving pressure on endangered ecosystems and reducing the extensive pollution caused by the fishing industry.

It would prevent the torture and killing of billions of creatures every year, and also greatly reduce the risk of diseases spreading from animals to humans. It would render abattoirs obsolete would also end their inherently abusive labour practices.  It leads to returning lands to dispossessed indigenous peoples and back to Nature by rewilding and conservation initiatives. Sustainable ecological farming, small and local, now become more feasible

There is, of course, parallel development of plant-based animal product alternatives. Given that those processes can be made with existing technology and widely grown plants, and can scale up and reduce costs quickly. But no matter how it resembles real meat, it isn't real meat.

Adapted and abridged from here

Man v food: is lab-grown meat really going to solve our nasty agriculture problem? | Meat industry | The Guardian

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