Worried about eating meat grown in a lab? Meat producers already use technology to transform every aspect of raising animals of food, including the animals themselves.
Thanks to innovative plant-based meat brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, gone are the days of cardboard-like veggie burgers. And with global partnerships with fast-food restaurants like Burger King and McDonalds, their products are virtually everywhere. Sales may be slowing a bit, but the global plant-based market value is still projected to reach $93 billion by 2028, compared with just $41 billion in 2021.
Cell-cultured meat—real meat grown from biopsied animal cells rather than slaughtered animals—still has a long way to go before being commercially viable. Some doubt that it will ever reach price parity with conventional meat. Still, the industry is making progress. Eat Just, for example, sells cell-cultured chicken in several eateries throughout Singapore, and customers are walking away pleased. A 2021 survey showed nearly nine out of 10 patrons were open to substituting their consumption of conventional chicken with Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken.
And it’s no wonder: These next-generation meat alternatives not only successfully mimic the taste and texture of conventional meat; they are also healthier, more environmentally friendly, and kinder to animals.
But like any new technology, this one has its fair share of critics. Detractors of alternative proteins have dubbed cell-cultured products “frankenfood”––a pejorative term that plays into the narrative that meat alternatives are “unnatural,” “synthetic,” or even dangerous. Polls show that plenty of consumers don’t want anything to do with “fake” meat, preferring the “real thing.” The problem with this line of reasoning is that the conventional meat on the market today is a far cry from the “real” and “natural” product consumers imagine.
Consider chicken. As I describe in my book, Meat Me Halfway, today’s chickens barely resemble the birds our grandparents ate. In the 1950’s, the average chicken grew to about two pounds. Today they’re much bigger, at about six pounds. This didn’t happen through natural selection, but through deliberate, artificial selection. Producers have used selective breeding to push chickens to their biological limits.
In the 1940s, Howard Pierce—the national poultry director for the largest food retailer in the U.S.—had a vision for a new type of chicken, “similar to that of the broad-breasted turkey.” He and a committee of poultry growers created a national contest to find what they collectively dubbed the “Chicken of Tomorrow.” After evaluating 31,680 prized fertilized eggs, they announced a winner: a breed made by crossing a California Cornish male with a New Hampshire female. It was nearly four pounds—twice the size of the average chicken at the time. Just 15 years later, more than half of the commercial chickens raised in the U.S. were directly descended from this breed.
But poultry companies were not satisfied. Working with emerging biotechnology firms, they continued to alter the chicken’s genetic makeup. Through a series of complicated cross breedings, these companies produced chickens—patented as intellectual property—that made the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest look like a middle-school science fair.
In addition to breeding chickens for physical characteristics, like size and breast meat production, meat producers now breed chickens for behavioral characteristics. Since chickens are raised industrial farms, where they are confined under torturous conditions to produce cheap meat, producers selectively breed chickens who eschew even basic forms of expression, like pecking and flying short distances. Today’s chickens live in near catatonic passivity. They are so large that their bones, ligaments, and tendons are unable to support their own weight. The idea that the chicken consumers eat today is “natural” is a fantasy.
And it’s not just chickens that have been deliberately altered. Dairy cows have been bred to produce twice as much milk as they did 40 years ago, resulting in serious health and reproductive problems. In addition to selective breeding techniques, researchers have developed gene-editing technology to alter the characteristics of farmed animals. For instance, they’ve created extra muscular pigs. These pigs create leaner meat—and more of it—than their more “natural” counterparts, but they also face reproductive trouble and increased mortality.
Even in the sea, animals have been subject to scientific experimentation. For example, in the 1970s, researchers developed technology to produce all-male tilapia, because they grow faster than female tilapia. Today, farmed and genetically modified tilapia grow more than 36% faster than their unmodified counterparts.
To be sure, “heritage breeds”—farmed land animals that retain more of the characteristics of their wild ancestors—still exist. And when it comes to seafood, eating wild-caught fish is an option. Meat from these animals may seem less artificial, but it is increasingly hard to find. Animals from heritage breeds are so rare that many of them are endangered, and the world now produces more seafood from fish farms than wild catch. The reality is that factory farmed animals—and the genetic modifications associated with them—overwhelmingly dominate the industry.
So if you want your food to be “natural,” it’s really not clear whether you should choose meat made from animals or newer alternatives (like plant- and cell-based meat). None of these are “natural,” and all are drastically different from the meat our grandparents ate. But what is so important about “naturalness” anyway? Perhaps it’s time to base our food choices on other factors, like ethical and environmental considerations. If we do that, the winner is clear.