As our homes get smarter and the appliances that shape our lives get more sophisticated, it's a little incongruous to think that our cooking and eating habits haven't changed so much.
Even when nutritionally-perfect food replacements are readily available, most people's idea of a slap-up meal involves singeing some flesh on a hot piece of metal. So if we're not going to give up meat, should we be using technology to give up the cruelty and death that comes with it?
A bloodless coup
It’s sobering to think that our perception of technology is warped by familiarity. Our brain boggles, assimilates, and then quickly forgets the impact of enormous tech advances: when was the last time you felt frustration as a web page took more than a few seconds to load?
(Answer: a lot of you - 40% of online shoppers abandon websites that take more than 3 seconds to load)
For perspective, anyone over the age of about 35 would do well to recall the tortuous bit-by-bit page-loading experience of the pre-broadband world; meanwhile, the parents of these Gen-X dial-uppers might not wish they can remember once marvelling at colour TV.
While the word “technology” is long removed from just being about mechanical doohickeys and digital boondoggles, it’s still a little unnerving when “tech” starts to pry into the more fleshy parts of our lives. The idea of using science and technology to tweak our food, for instance, might feel a little weird. A bit intrusive. A little... unnatural.
Yet don’t be surprised if one day you look back and wonder how you became blasé about eating meat that doesn’t come from an animal.
Chew on that for a second. Non-animal-derived meat. Slaughterhouses shuttered. Butchers butchered.
A bloodless coup for the Wholegrain Trinity of vegetarians, animal welfare campaigners, and the squeamish is just around the corner.
Except that future is already here. Time to fire up the BBQ and dial down the guilt, because from now on it’s mock turtle all the way down.
The aptly-named Impossible Foods has only been around since 2011. But the six intervening years – in which, one presumes, wild-haired scientists have been attaching electrified crocodile clips to tenderloin steaks and dipping streaky bacon into lab beakers that have smoke tumbling out of them in their gothic mountain-top laboratory – have seen a remarkable sequence of breakthroughs.
Corners sometimes have to be cut in the quest for a magic burger: animal fat is hard to create, so burgers are flecked with non-animal fat processed to taste, feel and look like cow fat. Heme – the chemical that makes a medium-rare burger pink – is extracted from root veg and mixed in.
Sounds a bit… icky? Forget it. You’ll take a bite soon enough. Price is important in the world of the magic burger, just as much as perception.
We want our food cheap, clean, and with any overt connections to its source to be airbrushed into fantasy-farm perfection: rolling green fields populated with cheery farmers and comfortable livestock. Until now, we’ve buried the nagging perception of overworked and underpaid farmers, and miserable cows under a pile of affordable meat products: yum.
So if our latent concern for animal welfare won’t change how our meat is made, good old late-stage capitalism will - because
You can wrap your incisors around this burger, right now, for $13.95. It’s not quite McDonalds’ 99¢ Menu price, but it is surprisingly accessible – and economy of scale should start bringing that price right down.
The Big Dipper
Hey, how does it work? Oh boy, that’s a biggie. Imagine initiating some of the most complex chemistry, physics and biology technologies all at once – and then somehow making meat out of that process. It's expensive, and it requires lots of patience.
You need more of an idea? OK: essentially, animal cells are harmless taken from living animals, then [insert proprietary and secret magic process here] - and a series of small meat fibres are grown. Not whole muscles yet, just little whispy bits. Mince that was never anything more than just... mince.
This is why Impossible Foods make burgers from their mince, although it’s unclear yet whether Memphis Meats’ lab-grown Chicken Tenders - are cut from a chunk of cultured chicken or formed from bits of chicken.
And here's where things get a bit interesting. One useful side effect of cultured meat is a reduction in carcass waste. You only grow the bits of animal that you really want.
You can even grow bits that don’t exist: you probably already know this, but there’s no “dipper” on a chicken. It’s something we fashion out of part of the bird.
But now that doesn’t matter. A dipper is a dipper. Grow the dipper. And if you can grow it, why bother growing the rest of the bird?
It’s also why Memphis Meats refer to their meat as “clean meat.” It’s not just clever branding – that removes problematic mental images of labs, white coats, and chemicals sloshing around your food – but it really is cleaner. Less waste, fewer resources used.
You aren't what you eat
The benefits aren’t just animal welfare and ridding the world of unused bones. It’s about gas, water, and a whole lot more. The CO2 production in the manufacture of meat is enormous. Not only are cows notorious farters (those four stomachs make gas emission more hearty, I guess) - but the process of breeding to baby cow to big cow to auction to slaugherhouse to plate is heavy on CO2 as well.
Most animals grow slowly as they approach peak deliciousness, and life needs food and water - lots of it. One pound (454g) of beef needs 1,799 gallons (6810 litres) of water and pork needs 576 gallons of water (2180 litres).
To put it in a more digestible manner: if you eat a ¼ pound lab-grown burger, the environmental savings – according to Pat O. Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods – are huge.
When compared to a slaughter-derived burger, you’ll save the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car 18 miles (29Km), water equivalent to what a human would drink in a couple of months, and 75 square feet (7 square metres) less land needed to produce that one burger.
The international appetite for red meat is enormous. So much so that Professor Tim Benton, of the University of Leeds, says that many people would make a bigger reduction in their carbon footprint by significantly cutting down their beef consumption than giving up their car.
(He doesn’t mention what these car-owners should order from the drive-through instead.)
The Vegan Quandary.
If the meat was never alive and never mooed, clucked or bahhed… is it really an animal product? Might the most stringent vegan guzzle a pious pork chop?
Inevitably, the online vegan community, never missing the opportunity to take a complex moral argument and make it a lot more tedious, shouty and downright unusual, has OPINIONS. Should you desire to take a peek into this world, you'll find these vegan opinions on Youtube, clustered together and pecking at each other like caged hens.
And it’s really rather a winningly simple argument - as the Bros put it: “Millions of animals lives will be saved!”
Nitpickers might ask whether growing meat counts as ‘saving’ animals who would never be born specifically to be slaughtered – but c’mon, this point is essentially moot. Who doesn’t want to eat meat that bypasses the act of an animal being chopped to bits?
The other other white meat
As always, in a world where tech evolution is leaping in exponential steps, the logical conclusion is both terrifying and terrifyingly close. So, come on, you’ll have thought about it by now: what about the forbidden meats? We could… just rustle them up too now, right?
Ever wanted to have an White Rhino steakwich? How about Panda Dippers (great with smoky BBQ sauce)? Maybe the tastiest meat you’ve never had is Elephant? Or Tiger! Or Koala! Hey, what about Human Bacon? I bet Human babies are tender? Turns out cannibalism isn't so much of a problem any more. Right?
Wait - what about invented meats? What would the hybrid meat with all the succulence of lamb, the texture of beef and flavour of pork be like? What about meat with the texture of salmon and the flavour of veal?
What about a meat that is based on nothing that actually exists - a brand new “animal” meat? How about a T-Rex sausage?
Yes, the near future is going to be weird. But really, really delicious.