Branson is so confident about Memphis Meats' future that he told Bloomberg News, "I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone."1This so-called "clean-meat movement," also known as the cultured protein market, has struck a chord with many, from animal rights groups and vegans to environmental groups and media outlets.
There's no doubt that industrial agriculture, including CAFOs and the monocrops used to support them, is destroying the planet and must be changed. But is lab-grown meat really the direction we should be heading?
Do You Really Want Elite Billionaire Investors in Control of Your Burgers?
Once you get past the science-project feel, the idea of lab-grown meat sounds plausible - even ingenious. Meat without any of the environmental downsides and with no need to send animals to slaughter? Grown neatly and efficiently in a lab, resulting in juicy steaks, chicken and duck - enough to feed the world? It sounds too good to be true, but that hasn't deterred a laundry list of investors from staking their claim in this emerging market.
In addition to Cargill, Branson and Gates, other investors in Memphis Meats include General Electric CEO Jack Welch, venture capital firm DJF (which has also invested in Tesla, SpaceX and Skype) and billionaires Kimbal Musk (brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Kyle Vogt (co-founder of a self-driving car startup).
The "meat" starts with cells taken from live animals. The cells are then grown in a lab for four to six weeks. Reportedly, a beef meatball was created in February 2016, followed by chicken and duck in March 2017,2 but the product is still far too expensive to bring to market.
It costs about $9,000 to produce 1 pound of lab-grown chicken and about $18,000 to produce 1 pound of beef meatballs.3 This sounds like a lot, but when the first lab-grown hamburger was debuted in 2013 by professor Mark Post and colleagues from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, it cost $350,000.4 As for how they did it, Post was vague when speaking to The Washington Post, stating, "I would elaborate, but these methods are soon going to be patented."5
Aside from the cost, other hurdles also remain, like the controversy over Memphis Meats' use of fetal bovine serum, although they say they plan to replace it with a plant-based product instead.6
Is This Really 'Clean Meat?'
You need only watch the Memphis Meats video above to get a glimpse of the feel-good vibe the company is going for. The Good Food Institute (GFI), which seeks out entrepreneurs and scientists to form plant-based and lab-grown meat companies, also put out notice that the preferred term for the latter is "clean meat" - not cultured meat and certainly not lab-grown either. According to GFI:7
"When we talk about the fact that this meat is 'clean,' our conversations immediately focus on the aspects of this technology that are the most relevant and beneficial for consumers: namely, that this meat is cleaner than the meat from slaughtered animals, both in terms of basic sanitation and environmental friendliness ... First impressions are critical. We don't want to start a discussion by having to disabuse people of negative associations and inaccurate assumptions."But is it really accurate to call this new product "clean meat?" It would seem that this term already belongs to grass fed farmers who are raising animals on pasture, without reliance on chemicals or genetically engineered (GE) feed, in accordance with the laws of nature. In reality, the startup companies are using the term clean meat to refer to both meat produced without animal slaughter and plant-based meat alternatives.
What's clear is that their makers want these science experiments to appear like real meat, only better. It's promoted as a win-win for everyone, nonhuman animals included, but do you know who the biggest winners will be? The billionaire investors slated to get even richer if their fully patented meat products take off. No one can patent a natural cow, chicken or duck, but with the advent of lab-grown meat, the resulting beef, chicken and duck is very much patentable - and fully controlled by its makers.
As we've seen in the past with Monsanto's patenting of GE seeds, putting the food supply in the hands of a private corporation is rarely a good idea. (The patenting of seeds and the subsequent restrictions on seed have led to what is essentially a takeover of the farming industry by chemical companies.) There's more, even, than money at stake as, if you control the food supply, you essentially control the world.
Industrial Agriculture Needs a Major Overhaul, but Eliminating Nature Is Not the Answer
Creating patented lab-grown meat products is not about feeding the world or eliminating animal suffering. It's about dominating billionaires looking to put patents on the food system. Memphis Meats is just one such company in the making.
Impossible Meats, in which Bill Gates also invested, is another, which is in the process of creating a meat substitute made from soy, wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and plant-based "heme," the latter of which is derived from GE yeast. Other so-called clean meat companies include Mosa Meat and SuperMeat.
They all share the common thread of giving the world the meat they love without the pollution and animal suffering. PETA has even taken to calling lab-grown meat "cruelty-free" meat,8 and I'm aware that many people view lab-grown meat as the lesser of two evils when comparing it to the CAFO meat that currently dominates the market.
There is no doubt that CAFO meat is devastating to the environment, unsustainable and inhumane. Change is urgently needed, but eliminating nature in favor of lab-grown meat is not the answer.
The fact is, when animals are raised according to regenerative agriculture, an ecosystem is created, one that is both healing for the land and productive for the farmers who keep it. Eating meat is not synonymous with harming the environment; it's industrial farming practices that have done the latter. Some people also believe eating meat means ripping out more forests so animals can graze, but I'm certainly not advocating for that.
U.S. cropland is currently dominated by a two-crop planting cycle of corn and soybeans, largely for animal feed. Like CAFOs, these monocrops are devastating the environment, and even though they're plant foods, are part of the problem, not the solution. Getting rid of these large swaths of corn and soy fields, which, if you've ever visited one, you'll know are chemical-laden and largely devoid of life, is key, as is reverting them back to what they were before, healthy grasslands for grazing animals.
Herbivores are a necessary part of this process. By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals - meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns - farmers can support nature's efforts to regenerate and thrive.
This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil's fertility.
'A Kinder, Gentler Agriculture' Versus Future 'Meat Factories'
In the video above, I speak with Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. Harris is a pioneer of grass fed products and what he calls "a kinder, gentler agriculture." What you'll notice if you visit a regenerative farm is that it is teeming with life.
You see birds, insects, bees and animals, all living together in concert - a true ecosystem. Harris' farm is a great demonstration of how you can convert decimated conventionally farmed land to a healthy, thriving ecosystem based on regenerative methods, with the help of grazing cows.
If this were to be done across the U.S., organic matter in the soil could be converted back to healthy levels within a couple of decades, which could in turn improve yields, lessen the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers and produce more nutritious food. This is where lab-grown meat falls short.
The symbiotic relationship formed by the many animals on a regenerative farm is a foundational part of regenerative land management that is so desperately needed in many parts of the world. You'd be hard-pressed to gain the same benefits without them. In contrast, the "clean meat factories" of the future being supported by billionaire investors look nothing like the thriving ecosystems found on regenerative farms.
In an interview with Munchies, GFI director Bruce Friedrich said,
"If you tour a meat factory in the future, it will look like a brewery - basically with big meat fermenters, and there will probably be big meat factories and much smaller meat factories ... [You may even] be able to get cells and sugars and, with your desktop meat-maker, create your burger or chicken or whatever else."9For the record, perhaps it's not surprising that certain investors like Bill Gates have taken to investing in lab-grown meats instead of regenerative agriculture. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation not only funds The Cornell Alliance for Science, which is essentially a front group for the agrichemical industry, but is also pro-GMO, which makes sense, since Gates has also bought millions of dollars' worth of shares in Monsanto stock, according to AlterNet (and, remember, also invested in the soy- and GE-yeast-based "burger").10
It seems he has a penchant for GMOs and lab-grown meat, both forms of patented staple foods that, while looking good on the surface, pose many new, and likely unforeseen, hazards to the global food supply. On the other hand, sourcing your foods from a local grass fed farmer is one of your best bets to ensure you're getting something wholesome. And, you'll be supporting the small farms - not the mega-farming corporations - in your area.
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