Monday, April 2, 2012

Repackaging Cultured Beef: Contextual Quality & Collective Action

Dr. Mark Post at the University of Maasstricht, inspecting
a proto-type culture of beef.
By the end of this year - Dr. Mark Post, and his team of researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands claim they will offer a celebrity-chef taste testing of the world's first lab-grown beef - also known as cultured beef. Now, at a price tag of some $200,000 - the technology is not quite economical to assuage our global hunger for hamburger. Rest assured - the price will go the down, the quality will go up - and in spite of the obvious 'yuk factor' - a huge majority of the world will accept cultured meat as a tasty and nutritious status quo (for more on how and why that is possible - see this article I wrote back in 2010).

If you happen to be a beef farmer today - whether conventional, organic, or grass-fed - you might be thinking '"Not me - I'll stick with real meat, I'm simply not interested" - well, I've got news for you - get interested, because this game-changing technology will literally affect the actual quantifiable quality of YOUR product.

This might seem counter-intuitive. We might be tempted to think that meat quality is absolute and that we are capable of engineering desired qualities into the processes of the supply chain. Indeed - some elements of quality are this way - farmers can control what feeds, supplements and health care treatments are offered to their cattle. Processors can control the humanity of their slaughter methods, and the post-slaughter processing practices.  Indeed, even consumers can and do select the quality of their meats based on any number of 'absolute' criteria - organic or conventional, more processed or less. This absoluteness, however, when it comes to ecological and social dimensions of quality - is largely a mirage.

A rigorously holistic understanding of meat quality in today's globally connected economy reveals a vastly different picture. Far from being absolute, holistic meat quality is highly relative and contextual.

Consider this - if you are an advocate of grass-fed beef being slaughtered on-grass and on a small-scale, as indeed I am - perhaps you would like to see a law passed within the US banning feed lots and industrial slaughter houses? Sounds like a good idea -  right? Wrong! The results would be globally negligible if not disastrous. Overnight, producers around the world would jump on this sudden and overtly significant market opportunity, and like it or not, America's industrialised beef production really is vastly superior to industrialised beef anywhere else in the world. The Brazilian rainforest would be pillaged at unprecedented rates, and less feed-efficient cows in Australia, Europe and Asia would overcrowd feed lots to pick up the slack.

"Well - people just need to eat less meat" - the organic farmer is quick to reply....perhaps true - but what are we to do? Globally regulate and dictate the diets of every man, woman, and child? Personally, I would never ever want to have the government involved in regulating anyone's diet. To be sure, cultural changes will be important, but in an increasingly interconnected and free world - we have to realise that the ecological and social "qualities" embedded in meat (and non-meat) foods co-exist simultaneously in both a local and global context.

Cultured meat is about to change this context in ways we can only begin to imagine. In a world of abundant cultured meat - the moral high ground that high-production agriculture currently stands on will vanish. Laws to stop behaviour limiting farm practices such as gestation crates and overly maligned feed lot will suddenly seems much more justifiable and achievable.

What about alternative agriculture? Small-scale, organic, and grass-fed producers - won't they go out of business also? Well, many undoubtedly will, but those that do not will truly be a testament to the emerging ethical imperative of our evolving partnership with non-human animals. Grass won't stop growing on otherwise un-farmable land, and our ruminant friends - under our guiding hand - truly are the best in the world at managing this critical global resource. As well, we can, when we chose, offer animals the most peaceful of possible death options: on-grass (not just "on-farm") slaughter.

Here-in lies the challenge to all farmers everywhere, and one they must begin preparing for now. In an age of abundant cultured meat of almost limitless holistic quality enhancements - attention to the qualities of 'real meat' will reach levels of introspection we can only anticipate.

There will always be a critical role for traditional animal agriculture - this is, I believe, ethically inescapable, but how farmers evolve sustainability in this brave new context will be the challenge of the century - and it starts NOW!


For more info on Cultured Meat - check out the Ted Talk in the Emergent Technology playlist on the Mythic Meats YouTube Channel

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. I too believe the cultured meat is, in a very real sense, our greatest hope for saving the world. I advocate plant-based living always, and will continue to do so, but I also recognize progress when I see it. Nice to see that the animal rights movement, the environmental movement, and the public health sector can all unite under this very market-based approach.