How We Classify Our Food Is Important – And Getting More Complicated
I bet that a lot of people reading this make many of the same choices to eat better. Me, too. Eating better might involve health, environmental sustainment, morality.
For most on that long march, two guideposts are organic food (when we can find it and afford it) and less meat, if any. I ran across a couple of recent stories that show (A) Some people are working hard and creatively to help us do all that. (B) They are getting resistance in some interesting places.
Those old jokes about “nothing is easy” and “no good deed goes unpunished” come to mind with these stories.
Vertical Farming: There have been several stories of late about the growth and promise of vertical farming. In brief, this is growing food in high rise settings, using water and a special cloth rather than soil. It is an unconventional but natural process. It could feed many people with minimal environmental impact and much less land.
Like any complex system, there are pros and cons with vertical farming, but basically, what’s not to like? It’s an all-natural environment, producing healthy food. It is close to populations and without anything like chemicals we have learned to avoid. There are some issues to consider. The cost of urban land, where these farms are most often established, can be expensive. Also, energy demands for this closed environment are large. Consumers might bear those costs.
Well, it turns out that some folks in the organic food community do not want this produce labeled organic. Why? Because, you know, it’s not grown in dirt. No chemicals, no additives, all-natural processes. Just no dirt. I don’t claim to understand all the scientific or business aspects of this process. I also recognize that terms like natural and organic have been abused over time. The organic community has fought long and hard to have the term organic mean something. We have all been the beneficiaries of their efforts.
But this seems to me to be a resistance to new players in the field that is not right. If vertical farmers produce quality produce without anything that would disqualify traditional farming, they should be able to declare their efforts to be organic farming. Sounds right to me.
This new form of farming seems certain to spread, and soon. If you find the topic as interesting as do I, you might want to do a bit more reading. For a fine explanation of all this, take a look at this New Yorker story from last year; it’s an excellent read.
Cultured Meat: We have had what I will graciously call fake meat for some time now. Plant based meat-like products have gotten better over the years, some of them much better. Once in a while I come across a product that is a pretty darn good approximation of meat. But for the most part, we are not fooling our mouths. A veggie burger can be quite tasty, but not tasty like a hamburger. It is a similar but very different experience.
Enter cultured meat. This is a process extracting muscle cells from a live animal, doing some fancy slicing and dicing, and growing the cells in a culture dish type of environment. The early steps took awhile. The first actual hamburger patty cost about as much as a small house in much of the country. BUT the select group of tasters who sampled this little goodie were taken with how good it was. It was a juicy, tasty, hamburger. It just didn’t require killing an animal. There was high potential in the offing.
Fast forward a bit. Now there are a host of researchers and companies in the hunt to get this right. They are aiming for an acceptable price and high-volume production. They are making progress on both fronts. Someone in this field has noted that they expect to have the process at the right point shortly. A capacity of about the size of 1/3 of an Olympic swimming pool could produce enough meat for up to 20,000 people for a year.
Imagine meat developed with no animal feed (40% of US grain production currently). No methane gas, no endless acres of land, no slaughter houses. No animals full of chemicals. This will take some time yet, but it is more likely than not to arrive. This is not a bad thing. I know a lot of us would like everyone to go vegetarian, for lots of good reasons. But given a choice, a lot of people are not going there. This is an important alternative that accomplishes many important goals.
Now, enter the meat producers of Missouri. In August, the state of Missouri became the first state to pass a law saying that something cannot be labeled as meat unless it comes from a slaughtered animal. The cattle barons have seen the future and they are afraid. This is not the first rodeo (sorry, could not resist that one) for the cattle industry. You might remember their national association unsuccessfully sued Oprah some years ago for criticizing the American meat industry.
I have no problem with saying that something based on plant protein cannot be labeled as meat. That seems to be an obvious accuracy. Purveyors of such products have had no problem coming up with clever yet clear names for what they sell.
But cultured meat? Sorry, cattlemen – that is meat by any reasonable standard. Produced by a very different process but all the way down to the cellular level, it is without doubt meat. The future is coming fast. If you would like to read more from one of the active entities in this new field, check out the web site of Memphis Meats. Remember – they are only going to emphasize the good news, but still –they are on to something.
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