Lab-grown meat? Why not try less meat?

A China Daily article (well, podcast transcription, whatever) from February titled Artificial Meat May Answer Food Crisis, which I only recently discovered, left a foul taste in my mouth. Apparently scientists are now researching “in-vitro meat technology” as a solution to the food crisis, which will enable them essentially to grow meat in labs, freeing up valuable land (hopefully to grow other things… but probably to build luxury condos, at least in China).

While the concept of growing meat (as opposed to growing animals) is still at the research stage, and it may be a while before we see the meat section overtaken by “lab-grown lamb loin” and “petri-dish pate”, just the idea that a bunch of smart people believe we will (have to) settle for artificially grown meat just because we NEED to eat meat is disturbing to me.

There is also a “yuck factor” to overcome when people know that meat is grown in a lab, although other foods like yogurt have been cultured for years.

“One of the biggest things that people enjoy as a comfort thing is food,” said Sam Bowen, a bar manager in Columbia, South Carolina.

“And until people grow up with the idea of artificial meat, it’s going to be hard to convince people otherwise.”

I do love my beef brisket and char siu and smoked salmon and honey garlic chicken wings and… I could go on, but this is because I grew up eating these things and finding comfort in them. It reminds me of childhood, of family, tradition. But now that I’m starting to realize what a drastic effect meat eating around the world is having on, well, the world, I can make a conscious effect to at least reduce the amount I eat. And have my future children grow up not with the “idea of artificial meat”, but rather the idea that plants can be yummy, and that meat is a treat and — like processed junk food — isn’t really necessary at all, at least in the quantities we consume.

I’m not saying everyone needs to go vegetarian — I myself am not prepared to give up meat entirely for the rest of my life — but why not try to be more aware that meat doesn’t need to be present at every meal, for example? Or even every other meal? The Meatless Monday movement is a good start, and for people who make most of their meals at home, it can be easy or even fun to find other ways to put protein on their plate. I think the point is to shift the way we think about meat, from something we take for granted to something we have to make a conscious decision to consume, whether we are cooking at home or ordering at a restaurant. We’d need some help from restaurants, though, which aren’t going to want to change until/unless demand changes.

You can call me hypocritical: I still eat some dairy products and believe my life would be incomplete without eggs. For now, for me, the line is drawn there. And yet I have a happily, healthily vegan friend; how does she do it? I guess it comes down to how much each of us wants to contribute, to give up — to contribute by giving up. And it’s okay to keep some of our traditions and habits as long as we’re continually introducing new, environmentally- (and health-)friendly ones. While we can claim “but this is our culture!”, we must also accept, and even promote, the fact that culture evolves. The question, as the article suggests, is whether we want a food culture of more vegetables or of in-vitro meat.

Consumption of all kinds is a mark of one’s standard of living, and we are loath to give up the variety in food we have come to acquire through decades, centuries of hard work. As China has been growing increasingly wealthy, for example, its people are consuming more meat and a wider range of foods than ever. But what if we can find ways to be better to the environment — by eating, as Michael Pollan suggests, “mostly plants” — without sacrificing that VARIETY we crave? Even just the past few weeks of culinary exploration has revealed half a dozen plant foods I’d never before considered incorporating into my regular diet.

Here’s another way to think about it: if we all eat less meat, we can all keep eating real meat.

(As a side note, the New York Times seems to be going vegetarian — all of their “recipes for health” lately have been vegetarian (or even vegan?), and there was a mouth-watering article on the growing popularity and variety of veggie burgers in the US. I’ll put my support behind those creative veggie burger chefs long before I’ll start believing in lab-grown meat as the answer to our world’s food problems.)


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