Meat Without Animals
A world without slaughterhouses is closer than you think
“If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?” This question wasn’t from a science fiction writer or the head of the Humane Society of the United States. Rather, this came from Tom Hayes toward the end of his tenure as the CEO of Tyson Foods, the largest producer of meat in the U.S.
Why would the CEO of Tyson, whose brand has become synonymous with chicken, want to remove the animal from production? In part because meat production will be more efficient that way; by growing meat without bones, feathers or hair, we can get more of it with the same resources. United Nations scientists say that raising and killing animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”`
In 2017, an animal advocacy think tank found that a majority of people were uncomfortable with how animals are used in our current food system and that nearly half want to ban slaughterhouses. Oklahoma State University got similar results with a follow-up survey. Couple that with the fact that there are simply not enough resources to scale up current meat production to feed the world.
Fortunately, we are approaching the day when Hayes’s slaughter-free meat is a reality. Companies around the world are rapidly bringing down the cost of animal-free meat, which is grown directly in a facility similar to a brewery rather than as part of an animal. This “cell-based” product (aka “clean meat”) is exactly like what everyone is used to, right down to the DNA. Furthermore, there is no fecal contamination, and it does not require the chronic use of antibiotics.
With all these benefits, the question “Why wouldn’t we?” becomes even more difficult to answer. Although there are technical challenges to scaling up production to be cost competitive with conventional meat, no scientific breakthroughs are necessary to bring it to our plates.
The main question now is which country will lead the way. The governments of Japan, the Netherlands and Israel have already invested in research and startups. Given the magnitude of the global problems clean meat can help address, those efforts abroad deserve to be applauded. But we should also care about that success here in the U.S.; according to the Department of Agriculture, Americans ate a record amount of meat in 2018—over 222 pounds per person.
There are signs the government wants to be at the forefront of clean meat development. In a report to the White House, the National Academy of Sciences singled it out as a technology with particularly high growth potential. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has noted the importance of cell-based meat in keeping the U.S. a prominent meat exporter. “Shouldn’t we...be about how we can grow and feed people more efficiently and effectively?” he asked. “These techniques need to be embraced.”
And then, just a few weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture formally announced their plan for joint oversight of clean meat production within their current regulatory frameworks. The announcement gives leading clean companies, like Memphis Meats and Just, a clear signal that they will have a straightforward and fair path to market in the U.S.
If we listen to Hayes and Perdue, we will recognize that we should not only embrace meat without the animal but do everything possible to bring animal-free meat to the world.
“No scientific breakthroughs are necessary to bring meat without the animal to our plates.”