I’ve written about cultured meat before, here on Seriously Eclectic: seriously on the culinary potential of it, in the context of outrageous fast food gimmicks, and in the context of what 23rd century North American culture might become. This is definitely the first time, however, I’ve written about cultured meat as a way to save humanity from the zombie apocalypse.
It seems like a reasonable idea, doesn’t it? Keep the zombies fed and while you have an inconvenient mob of zombies nearby, they’re fat and happy and they leave your last redoubt of humanity alone. Hopefully. As long as you keep the feeding site a safe distance from your shelter – a catapult might be a good zombie feeding tool– and as long as you can grow enough brains to sate their unholy hunger. But that’s nothing different from a normal zombie story: survival always boils down to who has the brains.
Zombies aside, though: I write a lot about lab-cultured meat and it is a common background (sometimes foreground) detail in my stories. I write about it because I’m as sure as you can be about anything that hasn’t happened yet that cultured meat is happening. By which I mean I expect to see it in stores and widely popular before this century hits the halfway mark, and very possibly much sooner. Like the self-driving car, the question isn’t if, but when and how.
The emergence of cultured meat into the marketplace will be contentious, sort of like the emergence of margarine provoking (I kid you not) concerted attacks from butter producers. With the potential for inexpensive factory production of cultured meat beyond what any stockyard or meat packing plant can accomplish, cultured meat is likely to wipe most traditional meat production off the map – something that margarine never accomplished against butter, even at the height of its vegetable-oily power.
It needn’t be a zero-sum game between meat culturing upstarts and established corporate meat producers. The latter could easily invest in the former or create their own ventures which would be likely to succeed: with great funding comes great advantage. But I wonder: will the culture of the animal-raising-and-slaughtering business allow them to embrace slaughterless meat? I have my doubts, but perhaps there will be a standout, a meaty visionary in corporate clothing just waiting for the chance to make their mark with the meat of the future.
There are plenty of questions about how easily cultured meat can make that mark, how likely it is to become popular. Foremost is simple acceptance – will the average consumer be willing to eat a steak that wasn’t carved off a cow, a wing no chicken ever flapped? I think the answer is yes. Enough for cultured meat to gain a foothold, and that foothold will expand rapidly once the ice is broken. Sort of like “cars are a fad that will never replace horses” rapidly became “I want two cars, maybe three. Four would be nice, too.”
Weirdly enough, I think vegetarians and vegans may lead the way despite all the omnivores’ jokes about how annoying they can be (which is precisely as annoying as the vegetable-averse meat eater who won’t stop complaining about vegetarians every chance he gets). And that’s because many vegetarians and vegans are motivated by a concern for animal life. Cultured meat is created with no need for killing and no more animal pain than collecting a cell sample. A needle biopsy doesn’t exactly feel like a caress, but it’s a relatively small pain that passes quickly, doesn’t endanger the animal, and doesn’t involve a need for confining many animals in cramped or inhumane conditions. Those factors may lead many current vegetarians to be among the first people to purchase cruelty-and-even-inconvenience-free meat.
Other people either avoid or limit consumption of meat due to health concerns. They worry about fat content, antibiotics used in meat production, and unsanitary conditions. Cultured meat answers those concerns as well. If there’s a demand for fatless meat, you grow it fatless. Antibiotics aren’t needed – a roomful of culturing vats don’t come down with hoof-and-mouth or whatever. You’re not growing a whole animal, so you don’t need a bunch of growth hormone. As for sanitation, well, a slab of cells growing in a tank doesn’t poop. Poopless steak is one hell of a selling point if you have any slightest idea of how much poop ends up on traditionally produced meat. You can be sure that cultured meat sellers will tell you all about it. Seriously, if I was selling cultured meat “the competition has a bunch of poop on it” would be my first advertising campaign.
Cultured meat will almost certainly be cheaper than the competition, too. No need to keep animals alive, provide all the space they need (even the terribly cramped minimum possible), buy feed, dispose of all the animal poop, transport animals, dispose of dead animals, deal with sick animals, and so on and so forth. All those things cost money, money a cultured meat producer won’t have to spend. Lower price will overcome a LOT of concerns about eating cultured meat. Trust me, I’m telling you so from below the poverty line. Millions of parents will happily switch from cheap hotdogs full of ground guts and fat and scraps of dubious sanitation to even cheaper hotdogs full of clean and lean cultured muscle tissue. Millions of budget-conscious home cooks will happily switch from inexpensive ground meat and cube steak to inexpensive cultured New York strip. And will a restaurant or fast food chain hesitate to buy cheaper meat with a consistency of product and supply that ranching and chicken husbandry can’t hope to match? The answer’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?
And of course there will be questions about the producers of cultured meat – what are you growing it in, are there harmful chemicals in the nutrient baths, and despite the lack of poop is it really being handled safely?
Those are questions for regulators. Whether the meat’s off the hoof or out of the vat, it’ll continue to be a worry as long as we underfund and understaff and undermine the FDA. No matter what the future of meat is, that’s in the hands of voters and their elected representatives. So I’ll end with a PSA: don’t just root for your damn team like politics are a sporting event. Ask yourself “how do we make a better society and world for our grandchildren?”
Hmm. Can we grow politicians in vats? Would cultured politicians be safer and better than traditional on-the-hoof politicians? We do seem to have an oversupply of uncultured politicians lately coughTRUMPcoughcough. Maybe I’ll write about that next.