Will We Ever Stop Eating Animal Meat?

We need more than moral arguments against meat. We need a technological revolution in better, cleaner food.

Beef imported from the U.S., on sale in Beijing (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

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There are two big truths about eating meat from animals.

First, animal flesh imposes a high moral and ecological price for a tender medallion of food. Factory farming incurs the torturous treatment of millions of chickens, cows, and pigs each year. This constitutes a rolling moral catastrophe. What’s more, one-sixth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are directly attributable to raising livestock, and the figure is rising as more countries enter the global middle class. For most Americans, cutting meat out of their diets would reduce global warming more than giving up driving.

But here’s the second truth: Americans don’t really care about all that. Or, perhaps more subtly, many of them do care. But weighed against the panoply of meat-related rewards—the succulence of a perfect ribeye, the abundance of affordable meat options at the grocery store, the convenient protein-density of the food, and the opportunity to try the glazed duck at that place all your friends have been going on about for weeks—the moral and environmental costs of meat register as real, yet ignorable; snowflake static on the radar. In 1970, the average U.S. adult consumed about 200 pounds of meat per year. After four decades of factory-farming photos, vegetarian movements, and economic papers precisely calculating the life-cycle costs of a pound of beef, American meat consumption has gone up, by 20 pounds. Today, 95 percent of Americans—yes, including me—eat meat.

For years, the arguments against eating animal meat have mostly focused on reducing choice in our diets. But a modern cultural revolution designed around the elimination of pleasurable options and the restriction of individual human choice is a hard sell in most countries, particularly the U.S. Perhaps the road to a post-meat diet leads through a new agricultural revolution, where technology expands the modern menu with new foods that don’t require the mass-scale suffering of animals.

In the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Kasia Mychajlowycz and Patricia Yacob, we investigate the possibilities for moving into this post-meat world.

First, we visited the R&D lab of a cricket-rearing company called Tiny Farms, near San Francisco. Two billion people in the world eat insects as a part of their normal diet, approximately the number that owned a smartphone last year. It’s probably ludicrous to assume that Americans are prepared to switch en masse from brisket and burgers to bugs. One solution? Feed them to the cat. Pet food accounts for more than 25 percent of meat consumption in the U.S. That’s why Tiny Farms is working to replace meat with cricket in pet food. “The biology of insects is very efficient,” said Tiny Farms co-founder Andrew Brentano. “They're essentially cold-blooded, so they're not constantly burning calories to keep themselves warm. They very efficiently convert what they eat into their body mass.” Porterhouse aficionados can still slash their animal-meat footprint by cutting meat from their pets’ diet.

But what about replacing meat for humans? Today, there are a number of promising plant-based food companies, like Impossible Foods, that have made promising strides toward excellent meat-like alternatives. But to satisfy people's lust for actual meat, scientists may have to achieve the paradoxical: produce animal meat that didn’t technically come from an animal.

The future may be lab-grown meat. We speak to Mark Post, a Dutch scientist who designed and tasted the first ever lab-grown burger from stem cells. ("It wasn't even that good," he said, invoking the first pancake rule that governs all human experience.) Post says that scientists’ ability to control the fat and protein density of lab-grown meat could lead to a future where millions of people prefer the consistency and taste of meat that didn't come from a messy, bloody, imperfect mammal. “If you buy a steak in the Netherlands, it could be juicy, [or] it could also be a piece of leather,” Post said. “You have actually no idea what you're buying. This is one of the benefits of cultured meat: consistent quality.”

Could a bourgeois gastronomic culture, erected on the pillars of localism and all-natural diets, ever embrace a steak grown in the extremely un-local and quite unnatural confines of a Dutch laboratory? Maybe not. But taste is a fashion. Kale is gross, until it’s not. Diet Coke is great, until it isn’t. In the depths of World War II, with some in the government fearing that the country would run out of food, a panel of academics and marketers convened to discuss the idea of foisting animal organs onto American families. Organ-meat propaganda filled the pages of women’s magazines, beautifying the concept of serving children the offal of dead animals. Before long, liver and onions became a thing, for better or worse.

Eating is complicated. Our taste buds send information about the food melting in our mouths to several parts of the brain at once, evoking sweetness, happiness, and nostalgia. Most interestingly, they fire off a signal to the parietal lobe, which helps us form our identity. We ask: Am I the sort of person who would eat this? Perhaps, when “this” is a stem-cell hamburger, your answer for now is a hard no. But our identities are like our tastes—mutable. We change our minds. Why not employ this cognitive flexibility to expand our culinary tastes in ways that will reduce suffering and protect the planet? It’s like the old saw: The fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and the fastest way to his stomach is through his parietal lobe. Or, something like that.