“Cultivated Meat is no Silver Bullet” by Carlo Petrini

09 Feb 2022

The new year has only just begun but the food trends that are likely to be most talked about in 2022 are already taking shape. One of them will be without doubt artificial meat, or in vitro meat, or cultivated meat (several names exist to describe it). It is the result of elaborated bioengineering techniques that multiply lab animals stem cells to produce meat similar to that of real animals (of both land and sea).

Though this technology has been under study for more than a decade, only now does it appear to belong less and less to the world of science fiction while slowly becoming a reality. This can be explained by the conjunction of lower costs and increased investments which, according to estimates, will align the price of synthetic meat to that of animal meat by 2030.

Many are enthusiastic about the possible large-scale adoption of cultivated meat.

They claim it would avoid the slaughter of many animals and would be the silver bullet to tackle environmental damages resulting from the ever-increasing large-scale production of products of animal origin –from deforestation and overconsumption of soil and water, to fuel emissions (It is still to be fully demomstrated that cultivated meat and the processes needed are less environmentally damaging). All this without making any particular changes to our eating habits.

But this is a reductionist solution, devoid of any holistic and structured vision of our food system. First of all, it would increase the already high concentration of the food market in the hands of a tiny group of actors. For behind in vitro meat are the big food multinationals (such as Cargill, Tyson Foods and Nestlé, some of whom are leading players in factory farming and on the global meat market) as well as investment funds (whose sole motive has nothing to do with the desire to halt the environmental decline but the pursuit of major profit), and even some of the leading figures from Silicon Valley.

Many of these are the same actors who, in the 1970s, instigated the Green Revolution, promoting the use of synthetic chemicals and genetically modified seeds to solve the problem of world hunger (which is still very much present). Their actions have caused undeniable damage: desertification of arable land, biodiversity loss, destruction of ecosystems etc. And these must be a warning bell for us today. We must stop presenting technology as the only possible solution, as it keeps widening the gap between us and nature, and emphasizes humans’ presumptuous desire to dominate the planet, in spite of the many red flags.

Technology is important to build the future. But for it to achieve real and meaningful innovation, it needs to interact with culture and take the past into account.

Innovating also means drawing on the virtuous aspects of tradition (knowledge, practices and so on) that have safeguarded the balance between humans and nature in the course of time. On many small-scale livestock farms, animals are a resource and not a cause of negative externalities, as is the case for factory farms. I am referring specifically to farms on which animals can graze and satisfy their natural needs, where they do not have to spend their lives in confined spaces, eating genetically modified soybean. On those farms, livestock breeding often develops side by side with agriculture to form a closed loop system of matter and energy in which there is no waste, the ecological balance is maintained, and healthy food is guaranteed.

The way I see it, this is the path to follow in the future. The negative impact of today’s dominant meat production system is now clear, as is the need for a shift of our food systems towards more sustainable and vegetable options. This Is not about disowning animal farming but about seeking a change in the dominant model.

This can be done by redirecting funding from farming policies (which are not scarce) to those who implement ecologically and socially sustainable practices, and by teaching consumers to change their habits, which would partly involve a lower meat consumption, with a preference for quality and diversity (in terms of species, cuts and recipes). And yes, innovation also has a role to play and must be allowed to progress, but only if strictly regulated, and If citizens are given accurate Information with clear labels detailing the production methods. Because food is first of all a universal right and, as such, its production must always be geared towards the common good and not merely be the fruit of underground interests.

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