It's a Long Way to a Post-Meat World

Image: Flickr / Sumlin

Image: Flickr / Sumlin

Recently I produced a report on the future of fabricated food, focusing mainly on various types of fabricated meat—vat-grown and "printed," for lack of a better descriptor. The first thing I discovered is that journalists covering the "light science" beat love a pun in the headline. Annoying, yes, but this phenomenon also told me just how central meat is to culture. In the US, for example, beef is part of our national mythology—it's about freedom, power, expansion, aggression, wealth. I learned this first hand a few years ago doing research for a national restaurant chain that features beef prominently.

For example, the role of the person buying the meal was more about an expression of power and largesse than about a love of a juicy steak. It was about the ability to sit down with the extended family and sponsor a few hours' consumption of one of the most resource-intensive basic foods we have. Most of the rest of it is support infrastructure—having a sharp waitstaff, carefully selected wines, baroque desserts and all the rest just add flourish to this grand gesture. Whether hosting a few hundreds local warriors to your tent to lay waste to the four-legged fruit of the plains, or heaving up in a Cadillac SUV with kith and kin to the old favorite t-bone joint, little has changed in a thousand years. 

This experience also shows the massive gap between need (in the form of environmental drivers of rising demand for meat bumping up against its enormous resource footprint) technological capacity (advancements in stem cell technology, additive manufacturing, synthetic biology) and societal readiness to accept tinkering with something so fundamental. In short, while the idea of hacking meat is fascinating—its even the subject of a meat hackathon going on at the moment—the realities of fabricating meat are far more complex that a snappy headline.

These complexities? Start with feasibility. A limited number of in-lab successes do not a chain of "Chickie Nob" drive-thrus make. As Christina Agapakis points out in this piece in Discover, the economics of mass production are daunting, as is the science itself. What we've seen in public so far amount to some pretty small and unappetizing prototypes. The number of companies that possess the technology to do even this can be counted on one hand at the moment.

Reshaping demand is another. As with cars, electronics, and other signifiers of middle class attainment, affording cheap and convenient access to meat is an iconic part of economic development. We've advertised it as such for decades—it was even the thin end of the Western cultural and economic wedge breaking centrally planned economies during the last days of Cold War. More than anything else, seeing the Golden Arches over Moscow and Beijing told us we were winning. As with the other amenities listed, asking people to give up meat just when they've gotten access to relatively hygienic, mass-produced patties formed by someone else, and slathered with a calorie-rich sauce is a big, big ask. We won't be able to swap it for a wiggly meat marshmallow easily.

Lastly, changing cultural habits can be quite hard. Yes, we've eaten cheese from an aerosol can, made orange juice from powder and whitened our coffee with something disingenuously called "creamer" for decades. These were the fruits of the golden age of industrial food science, though something we've been moving away from in recent years in terms of public trust. Even as industrial manipulation and delivery of modified foods has never been more effective, public tastes are shifting more strongly toward natural, local and organic—less tech, not more.

As Christina and others have pointed out, reducing, not substituting, demand for meat is one short-term fix to bend the resource consumption curve (grasshoppers and seaweed, anyone?). This is also tough, and may have to begin in areas where alternative protein sources are more mainstream today, and encouraging shifts in dietary mix where meat is king. But to get to where fabbed meat enthusiasts want us to be, we have to start to redefine meat at a fundamental level, which will be a multi-generational endeavor. In my prior research on meat culture and restaurants, almost all of people I interviewed rejected the idea of even seeing their meat in raw form. Despite shows like "Bizarre Foods" and niche interest in snout-to-tail gastronomy, the vast majority of Western consumers want to see their meat steaming on plate, with a side of frites, patatas bravas, mash 'n' gravy or onion rings.

The meathacking discussion is very valuable because it calls into question a desire, a process, and an economy all at once. It makes us look at how much of our world is built around what and how we eat, and forces us to probe our tolerances for technological evolution. But, in the end, to get where advocates would like us to go, it's not so much meat we'll have to hack, as culture.