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Animal-free meat

December 16, 2018

Controversy over whether it is right to eat meat has a long history, and it seems to have become more intense in recent years.

Most people do eat meat. That includes me. I won’t try to justify my actions here, but arguments against meat-eating are numerous.

I can think of the following.

1. It causes unnecessary suffering of animals.

2. While eating a small amount of meat might be fine, larger amounts are bad for you.

3. Raising livestock is especially harmful to our environment, especially because our population is so large.

4. Feeding people with meat is a very inefficient way of getting nutrition.

5. Because meat is an expensive kind of food, meat-eating worsens global poverty — why feed corn to cattle when corn could go directly to people?

6. The concentration of animals as livestock furthers the spread of animal disease to other animals and to people. Humans have suffered from livestock diseases for thousands of years, for example, bovine tuberculosis.

6. Some meats are worse than others. Beef especially is harmful to the planet and our health.

As I indicated, I don’t want to judge these arguments or raise points in favor of meat here. I just want to say that a real alternative to raised or hunted meat seems just around the corner. Oddly enough, this emerging meat alternative is, well, ... meat. It is just like the meat we eat now except it is not grown as part of an animal.

This meat will not be grown on trees or in the soil. There will be no turkey trees or beef bushes. It will be grown in special facilities. In fact, the new meat is already here, but it is still too expensive to market.

The new meat is currently grown in laboratories, but as its production is ramped up, the growing facilities will not be called labs. They will gain common names.

Don’t confuse this lab meat with meat-like alternatives that have been on sale for some time now. I refer to those made of textured vegetable protein and the like. It will be actual meat — real beef, real turkey, real chicken, real bluefin tuna fish, perhaps even real pheasant. Dairy products, eggs, and leather will be grown too.

No animals will die. Muscle stem cells will be extracted from a few animals (no need to kill them). The cells will be grown in a nutrient medium on a scaffold into slabs of real chicken or real whatever-animal-they-were-taken-from. “Real cannibal” could even conceivably be grown without killing anyone. Note that human parts, such as skin, are already beginning to be grown.

What name will be given to this new sector of agriculture? Some already call it “cellular agriculture?” The names are going to be a political battle, however. It will not be a scientific decision.

Traditional meat growing operations will hate the stuff and do all they can to stop it. They will try to scare people, try to get the government to withhold any needed approvals, and make sure it is not marketed under some desirable name such as “clean meat” or “cultured meat.” This is already an issue in new legislation and food regulations.

I have noticed that once we look away from the traditional meat industry that opposes cultured meat, we find some big food companies (Tyson, Cargill) even putting money into advancing it. Perhaps billionaire investors will want to finance startups. In fact, Bill Gates already is.

As for myself, I will likely be eating the new meat and feeling plenty righteous about it.

2018 is the year for the farm bill in Congress. The huge farm bill comes up every five years. As I write this, the House and the Senate have settled their differences on the bill, and passed it, sending it to Trump for his approval (or veto).

The bill contains agricultural and food policies, but also some big land conservation programs, agricultural research of the federal government, rural development money, forestry and nutrition. The later contains the very large Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps. There is also the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to make sure Americans don’t absolutely run out of food.

Programs in the farm bill are usually authorized for five years. So, each new farm bill represents an opportunity and danger to these programs because new language and new programs occur, but mostly programs escape with just a few changes. I don’t know yet if the farm bill took up cellular agriculture in any significant way, but the future of meat is probably farming cells, not animals.

The farm bill’s contents are of great concern to both rural and urban America, and it would never pass without the votes of members of Congress from both segments. Because of its many provisions that require compromise and deal making to become law, the farm bill has often been held up as one of the best examples of how politics can make strange bedfellows.

Still, parts of the bill are matters of conflict between progressives and conservatives and the political parties. In fact, an earlier version of the new bill was voted down just last spring. The reasons are too complicated for me to discuss here, but this new law came as a second attempt.

Republicans usually try to cut the size and benefits of SNAP and put increased regulations on SNAP recipients. Democrats usually support bigger land and water conservation programs and more generous SNAP benefits. Also, they often try to cut the size of program benefits to the wealthy corporate farms.

Last month the new attempt at passing a farm bill almost failed when House Republicans added a forestry section that repealed timber cutting standards on the national forests. They were using the big wildfires to advance the timber industry’s interests and Trump’s notion that clearing trees will prevent wildfires.

Single timber sales as large as 6000 acres (9.4 square miles) would have been fastracked with almost no environmental study, little chance for public comment, and waving the rules to protect water, land, and wildlife.

Democrats unanimously opposed this, but they lost in the House. The Senate was another matter. Democrats won there by threatening to filibuster the entire Farm Bill.

It takes 60 votes (60% of the Senate) to overcome a filibuster. A successful filibuster in turn kills a bill by preventing a vote on it. Filibusters are a big weapon for minority party in the Senate because having a simple majority it just not enough votes. Currently Senate Republicans are way short of 60 votes. They have 51 seats now and 53 this coming January in the new Senate.

As I have written many times (and George Wuerthner) even more, logging does little to reduce or prevent wildfires.

As climate change worsens, sea food catch plummets, and new technologies appear like cultured meat, the farm bill will become more and more a political event concerning all Americans.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with his wife Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is currently on the Western Watersheds Project Board of Directors.

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