The Silence of the Lambs

Think of your special, happy places and your happy memories. Birthday parties, Christmas family dinners, weddings, romantic dinners with your partner, fancy company dinners… These are all special events and everyone celebrates them in their own, special ways. Some like their birthday parties quiet and intimate, some like them big and rowdy, some people like small weddings, while other people like their weddings to be a fairytale-like events with 600 people on board. But all of these events have two things in common: that special feeling of happiness and meat consumption.

Just think about it: have you ever been to a special event that didn’t have some exquisite meat meal? Every household has its own special recipes for their special occasions and they mostly revolve around special (read as costly) piece of meat that family eats once or twice a year. It is in human nature to associate big, fat, juicy (and costly) piece of meat with a sense of accomplishment and happiness, all the way back to prehistoric era.

The best hunter, the man who could bring home the most and the best meat (or meat carcass), was always the leader of the tribe; kings, pharaohs, emperors and leaders of all kinds celebrated their power with unending feasts that included a lot of sex and a lot of meat. Public displays of sexual or sexualized acts and food (mostly meat) abundance were always used (and still are) to showcase ones power and satisfy primordial survival instincts.

Throughout the history, any kind of meat was considered to be a luxury. Situation changed dramatically in the second halve of 20th century. Until then, meat was consumed only in those special events I mentioned in the opening of this blog-post. Staple of human nutrition was made of dairy products, wheat products such as bread or wheat porridge, stews made from cabbage, beans, potatoes or other available vegetable. Typical person ate less than fifty meat meals in their entire life. That is two to three weeks of meat consumption average person consumes today. So, why was meat such a luxury in times past and what made transition from meat-as-a-luxury to meat-as-an-everyday-commodity possible?

Common people lived in autarchic communities – each household, each farmstead had to provide every necessity for itself. Each household had to grow its food, process its food, make its own clothes, building materials, weapons etc. In those conditions, if you wanted to grow pigs, cows, sheep, chicken or any other animal, you had to build a special building for them, feed them with food you grew yourself, nurture them, kill them, process them in special buildings you had to build, treat them with spices that were extremely expensive at that time and store them in, again, specialized building for that – remember, there were no fridges back then. As you can see, it was a time consuming process that required a lot of ones effort and material investment. As a result, most people kept a couple of chickens (for their eggs) and a couple of sheep (for their milk and their wool). Some people grew rabbits for their meat. Owning one cow or one fully grown pig was medieval equivalent of owning an upmarket sedan like Mazda 6 or VW Passat nowadays.

Technological innovation of the 19th and 20th century, sociological changes that occurred during industrial revolutions (population moving from villages to great cities) and economic revolution (wide adoption of free market economy) ended autarchic communities and gave rise to the civilization of specialized individuals organized in nuclear families. With emergence of specialized manufactures and factories, with specialized bureaucratic machinery, with emergence of blue collar and white collar jobs, farming and husbandry became specialized, industrial activities. Law of the big numbers did its thing and farming output started to grow exponentially. Introduction of internal-combustion and electrical machinery gave birth to corporate farming and that transition made abundance of fruits, vegetables and meat reality we live in today. There are arguments if corporate farming industry is a good or bad thing, but reality is that without those great corporations operating in a free market economy, we would still live in a world where any kind of meat is a luxury and our diet would consist of season-available fruits and vegetables.

So, how does the husbandry look like today?

Most of our food comes from great, unending agricultural fields, be it from French and Ukrainian wheat-lands, USA Midwest with stretches of hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of farmlands and husbandry fields, Chinese or Argentinian steppes. Most of your food doesn’t come from some farmer that has two cows and five sheep, the food on your table is an end result of a fine tuned global industrial process. But is that whole process sustainable and ethically acceptable?

I will not go into the discussion whether meat consumption is an ethically acceptable or not, it really depends on your religious background, your empathy, desire to eat meat and plethora of other subjective reasons. I do not want to discuss these matters, I want to talk about science, about objectively measurable facts on the subject of sustainability of modern husbandry, whether there is a problem and what would solution to the problems, if there are any, be. I am using data collected mostly from USA, and I apologize for all the gallons and pounds mentioned in this post. The emphasis of this post is not on the actual numbers but on the orders of magnitude and ratios. I would like to point to the fact that the country that has the most “invisible” and lightweight bureaucratic system in the Western world has the most complete and up-to-date data on just about anything.

These are the facts about modern husbandry and agriculture.

Our food consumption is killing this planet, and this way of life, this way of growing our food is completely unsustainable. The data is irrefutable, the amount of evidence is overwhelming. In the face of this data, will I, and the most of the population, give up on meat diet?

To tell you the truth, no.

The fact is that we do eat too much meat and the amount of meat that we consume can certainly come down. We do not need to consume meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, one meat meal a day is certainly enough. If all people on the Earth would cut down their meat consumption to one healthy meat meal per day, environmental damage of husbandry would certainly be diminished. However, in the face of growing population numbers, continuation of desertification of our planet and increase of living standard in the Third world, no amount of meal-size decrease would stop us from driving ourselves to the complete and utter doom.

Would going back to the roots save us, as “environment-friendly” groups such as Greenpeace suggest? Would complete disbandment of modern agricultural industry (usage of pesticides, herbicides, GM crops, etc) save the planet?

Well, it would certainly make humans healthier. If a large portion of the population would start to farm again, without using the pesticides, herbicides or fungicides for their crops, without using antibiotics in raising their animals, we would eliminate a significant portion of the chemical pollution we’re causing today.

Most of the Earth’s population would starve as well. Personally, I don’t consider that solution to be most effective or the most happy one. Advocates of going-back-to-the-roots idea suggest then that we should just farm more land. That means that more forests, more swamps, more coastlines would have to be destroyed. As I pointed out earlier in this text, our ecosystem is on the point of breaking and we’re facing complete and utter loss of biodiversity as is. To further accelerate habitat destruction is no less than signing a death sentence to the entire humanity.

The next question is, what can we do? Can we save ourselves without going vegan?

Luckily, we can. And the solution for these problems is the whole reason why I started to write about this issue.

You see, there is a new revolution brewing right in front of our eyes, and it coming from the field that had nothing to do with agriculture or husbandry. Using the same techniques that are used in tissue building and 3D printing of the human organs from stem cells, we could theoretically grow animal meat and hide from animal stem cells. Take a vial of bovine (cow) stem cells and grow 100 pounds of beef in a matter of days, using nothing else than a container full of water, some hormones and a vial of bovine stem cells. Sound like science fiction?

Well, it was up until 2013 when a team of scientists made a hamburger-from-a-tube, first in vitro hamburger. A famous chef made the burger, the public could taste it and rate it and it was a smashing success. There was just one, small detail that still made in vitro burgers a topic of science fiction – that one small burger cost 250 000 €. That was about 300 000$. Nobody actually expected that in vitro meat will be commonplace in our lifetime.

And everybody was wrong. In just a year, the scientist managed to greatly optimize the process and they made a new public tasting event. This time, the burger did not cost 300 000 $. The cost of the burger was just 11$, or 80$ per kilogram of in vitro meat. The best part is that they can now produce over 10 000 pounds (over 5 000 kg) from just one small piece of meat.

Let that sink in.

Today, we have the technology not just to increase our husbandry output for 10% without causing environmental destruction, we have the technology to increase our meat production by 5 000 times, that is 5 000 000% (five million percent) without causing further environmental damage.

We are entering the new era of food production.

Welcome to the era of cellular agriculture.

There is a growing momentum in the scientific world regarding research and optimization of in vitro meat production. Plethora of research groups and organizations are doing their best to bring the artificial meat to our tables as soon as possible. There is a lot of hard work to be done, but in vitro meat will be a commonplace commodity in our supermarkets by the middle of this century.

And it is not just about the meat. We can already make perfect milk without cow or sheep, we can make (real) animal hide and leather without killing any animal and we can produce eggs without chickens.

With the birth of cellular agriculture, we once again have the possibility of growing healthy food for everyone without killing the planet and decimating species. We no longer need to slash jungles and rain-forests, we no longer need to pollute our air, water and soil with tonnes and tonnes of antibiotics. We can make Earth a healthy, vibrant planet once again and we can do it in our lifetime.

I fully expect Luddite-like organizations to raise up against the in vitro meat, I fully expect those you’re-playing-God(s) nonsensical argumentation and I fully expect that road from industrial agriculture to cellular agriculture will be a rough one. You can count that I will fight with every fiber of my being for cellular agriculture. And the reason for that is pretty clear; there are only 3 viable options regarding our future food production: (1) we will either continue to do what we’re doing today and kill our planet (and us with it) in the next 100 years, (2) we will revert to the “organic” farming and let majority of the world population to starve to death, or (3) we will embrace scientific advancements and make our planet a better place to live on, without sacrificing our modern way of life.

We all have that same choice.

Author: Patrik Nikolić

Biochemist. And a ninja.