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The big meat debate: is fake the future?

Pic: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The end of the abattoir? Pic: Thomas Bjørkan

So you’re curled on a sofa halfway through the advert break when one of those lovingly filmed food-porn adverts comes on. “Sticky cow tissue with the consistency of an undercooked egg,” murmurs a sensual female voice. “Lovingly scraped from stem cells, hand-stretched on strips of Velcro, and minced into a delicious patty. Mmm.” It might not sound appetising, but the vat-grown meat unveiled on Monday by scientists at Maastricht University may be the only viable answer to the crisis brewing under your dinner table.

The fact is that we might not be able to sustain our meat production much longer. Global meat and milk consumption is expected to double before 2050, and yet we already live in a world where, as Oxford biologist Colin Tudge puts it, “billions go hungry but 50 per cent of wheat, 80 per cent of maize and 90 per cent of soya are fed to livestock.” If it is possible to reform the meat industry along more sustainable lines, nobody’s trying. Fisheries are already harvesting mackerel at well beyond the replacement rate, cod and haddock stocks are depleted,and yet one third of Iceland’s catch went to feed land livestock.

Inefficiency abounds. In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, ecological campaigner Simon Fairlie called the US cattle industry “one of the biggest ecological cock-ups in modern history”. The agricultural resources of a small country go into making concentrated food for cattle that can’t efficiently consume them (but are given it because it best produces the fatty meat that sells). Pigs, which can eat almost anything, are prevented from consuming waste foods by the panic over BSE – which developed when meat and bone meal that would have been palatable for pigs was fed instead to cattle.

Fairlie rubbishes the claims of some environmentalists that every kilogram of beef takes 100,000 litres of water to produce, and his attack shows that a sustainable yet globalised meat industry is possible. But while campaigners and academics contend with the lobbyists of a lucrative industry and politicians who let lobbyists write legislation, the clock is ticking for the good we can get from the environment.

Worse, meat farming contributes to a growing medical crisis. The last ten years have seen increasing fears that over-prescription of antibacterial drugs is leading bacteria to develop resistance faster. But in 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that more than 70% of antibiotics used in the USA were given to livestock. While governments have started taking action, the damage has been done: crammed together in their own filth, flushed with antiobiotics as a cheap alternative to making any concession to their welfare, the billions of chickens, pigs and cattle farmed for our consumption were unintentional incubators for things that kill us. MRSA, NDM-1 and other ‘superbugs’ have a large part of their origin here.

If synthetic meat seems strange and unnatural, consider the way we eat now – and a recent architecture project at the Royal College of Art which takes the logic of the meat industry to its natural end. Student André Ford imagined immobilised and lobotomised chickens farmed vertically as unconscious ‘crops’ in close-packed pods. It is not very far from how broiler chickens are farmed now, with the notable difference that it is actually more humane. Modern farming is as far from our fantasy of real meat as the skin-and-cartilage paste in a tasty chicken nugget.

Let’s hope the scientists pull it off – because unless we can either convince companies to stop maximising their profits or stop the governments regulating them from taking their money, it’s either this meat or no meat.

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