I just heard part of a ted talk about lab grown meat and the possibilities for cheaper, less wasteful protein production. I have heard rumblings about this possibility before, and I want to share what I hope is a reasonable and totally not knee-jerk response with you.
First, I just want to point out that our beef herd forms the core of our on-farm fertility plan. Our vegetable production is dependent on the wastefulness of cows. Their literal waste, manure and urine, mixed with spent bedding, composts into plant food. The grass from the pastures is processed by the herd, and becomes the fertility for the vegetables; the creation of beef is almost a byproduct of the herd. If we isolate the creation of beef, we perhaps miss out on the greatest benefit of the cow: fertility.
Secondly, matter can still be neither created or destroyed, i.e. nothing comes from nothing, i.e. even this meat must have a source of energy for its production.
Thirdly, the creation of meat labs only continues the consolidation of meat and food production into fewer and fewer hands. Those fewer and fewer hands are also the hands that are better capitalized. People can produce their own meat by raising animals, as they have done for thousands of years. The process of raising animals for meat is not terribly capital intensive, but almost no one will have the capital to develop labs to create meat.
So, what’s the problem? Lab meat doesn’t remove people’s ability to raise their own cows. What is wrong with having another option on how to obtain protein? This is a good question, and a good question usually has a complex answer.
Over the past 120+ years our system of food production has become increasingly centralized. Family farms 100 years ago were consolidated into larger and larger farms. This is known as the “Green Revolution.” Not green as in environmentally friendly, but green as in dealing with plants. If the 19th and 20 centuries are the story of society industrializing and urbanizing, then the Green Revolution is the story of farms industrializing. Farmers that couldn’t or wouldn’t buy bigger, more labor-saving machines eventually were bought out.
The loss of the family farm is a familiar narrative for us, but something is happening at the same time. The support businesses for small farms disappeared. What kids want to take over the family farrier business when all the farms are moving to tractors? What tractor company wants to make a tractor that can cultivate 10 acres when most farms are 100 or 500? Small farms weren’t outlawed. No one said you couldn’t have small diverse farms anymore, but economic factors made operating small farms less and less appealing.
You may have heard about farmers suing John Deere over proprietary software. Farmers are claiming a right to fix their own machines, and John Deere has realized that a lot of money could be made by cornering the market on repairs. John Deere’s actions, to this humble farmer, seem to be following that trend of consolidating control.
As slaughter houses around the country grew bigger, bought out competition, they sucked all the oxygen out of the food economic for small scale butchers. If small scale butchers leave, what about small scale producers? If you butcher 2000 cows a day, how could you possibly make time for a farmer with 10 cows? Again, its economic pressure that causes change.
I am not Henny Penny, the sky is not falling. Lab meat is probably a dream, and even if it is fully realized, yes, there will still be small farmers who raise meat locally. My point is, all this consolidation was supposed to solve the food crisis. Bigger, more mechanized farmers were supposed to make hunger and food shortages rare. I am not sure if the vast 120+ year project has served us well. I’m not sure our food is more secure. Food is so elemental in our lives that we should try to hold on to our local and familiar sources. There are always things we can do to be better stewards, and raise food better, but more people should be involved, not fewer.