Manufactured Meat

This is not hamburgers versus veggie burgers, both of which are from nature. Rather it’s meat versus manufactured meat, or faux meat.

Who needs farms and ranches when food industrializers have petri dishes, fetal bovine serum, and cell vats?

Today’s most explosive front in the epic struggle pitting “agri-culture” against “agri-business” is in the realm of meat, including hostility over the very meaning of the word. But this is not hamburgers versus veggie burgers, both of which are from nature. Rather it’s meat versus manufactured meat, or faux meat, whether your patty, fillet, etc., is a natural part cut from an animal — or a lab concoction of biological and chemical goo transformed into pseudo-flesh by techno-giants branding themselves the “cell-cultured meat industry.”

The corporate assertion is that with enough capital and bio-wizardry they can “make” meat on a scale that will replace animals, feed the world and save the environment. A God-like miracle! They’ve enticed celebrity billionaires like Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel to invest in the creation of lab-assembled steak. Also, the establishment media has swallowed the fake meat PR: “One of the defining agricultural products of the future,” gushed New York Times columnist Ezra Klein. This is not science fiction, Klein proclaims, but a cultivated protein that’s dinner-plate ready, calling on government to “supercharge this industry” by putting “money and muscle” into “a moonshot for meatless meat.”

Uh … hold your horses. As investigative digger Tom Philpott points out in an August Mother Jones article, “mimicking the complex biological processes that generate what eaters know as meat is mind-bogglingly difficult.” Yes, and ag-biz bioengineers are not in shouting distance of Mother Nature. Indeed, an unadvertised secret of meatless meat makers is that their elaborate process begins with meat!

The corporations extract stem cells from slaughtered cows, pigs, etc., to produce tiny shreds of tissue in high-tech laboratories. Of course, for these bits to grow they must be “fed,” and the key ingredient for their sustenance is “fetal bovine serum” — the blood and mysterious compounds taken from the unborn fetuses of slaughtered cows.

Structural barriers to making and marketing this stuff are gargantuan. No. 1: Playing God is inordinately expensive (the price for one 5-ounce artificial hamburger patty introduced with great fanfare in 2013 turned out to be $330,000). No. 2: Entire new technologies, supply chains and safety systems would have to be invented and implemented. No. 3: Billionaires want profit — even Bill Gates expressed doubt: “I don’t know that (man-made meat) will ever be profitable.” No. 4: Consumers need affordable prices (last year, a prominent engineering assessment of corporate-constructed meat determined that costs “would likely preclude the affordability of their product as food”).

This stuff is just the latest in a long line of whiz-bang money hustles by ag-tech speculators. To reject their magic meat scheme, however, is certainly not to embrace the status quo of today’s tightly monopolized, industrialized meat system that’s ripping off farmers, ranchers, workers, consumers and communities while essentially torturing the animals, spreading disease and contaminating our environment. It’s a thoroughly rotten and corrupt system.

But far from competing with or displacing it, creation of a hyper-capitalized industry of faux-meat fabricators would simply be captured by it, for multinational meatpackers have the financial backing, marketing networks and political clout to own both the meat and meatless segments. Gotcha! Already, such top multibillion-dollar monopolists as Tyson and Cargill have bought into startup tech firms that are trying to make flesh in a vat.

The most damning thing about today’s high-tech meatless fad is that it is so unimaginative. Pour more capital and technology into the furnace of the existing industrial structure — what could go wrong? Remember just a couple decades ago when the pesticide spewers, then the genetic manipulators, were going to “fix” agriculture? These are the same hucksters coming at us today, but with a new gimmick.

The first question to ask these flimflammers is: “Who needs manufactured meat?” You want a meatless burger or chickenless chicken cacciatore? Look to the exciting community of small entrepreneurs and pioneering chefs around the world who are cooking up beans, beets and other veggies into truly delicious and healthy animal alternatives; let’s supercharge them to develop and democratize the meatless future. Meanwhile, let’s dismantle Big Meat’s monopolies and subsidies and instead put our public support behind the thousands of family farmers and ranchers who treat animals and our natural resources with respect and care.

Jim Hightower
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