After you’ve been vegetarian or vegan for a while, it’s hard to imagine eating meat ever again. Whether you stopped consuming it for health reasons, environmental reasons, moral reasons, or all three, there’s something about the texture of meat and knowing where it comes from that’ll make your stomach churn.
But that change can be slow to happen, even for dedicated abstainers–and of course many people never experience it because they’re 100% happy eating meat.
So, what’s a planet to do? How do we shift away from cruelty and unsustainable farming practices and toward alternatives that are friendlier toward animals, people, and the environment?
Obviously, the answer isn’t getting over seven billion humans to go vegan. Nor is it changing the definition of meat. (My father will never be seduced by the charms of a portobello burger.)
According to Paul Shapiro’s new book, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the answer to this pressing question involves using today’s technology to upend the very way that meat is farmed. Instead of killing cows raised on feed lots, Shapiro says that we’re at the point where we can grow legit meat in labs. Fast Company reports:
For Shapiro, writing this book at this time was just common sense. “We’re quickly reaching peak meat,” he says. “And the question really is: How are we going to feed the coming billions of people on our planet in the next few decades?” Certainly not through large-scale animal agriculture, a key driver of climate change and one of the most resource-intensive and wasteful industries on the planet. In a particularly compelling passage of the book, Shapiro encourages readers to imagine, while walking through the grocery store, over 1,000 single-gallon jugs of water stacked up next to each whole chicken for sale: That is how much water is required to bring a single chicken from farm to shelf, and poultry is far less resource-intensive and environmentally damaging than beef.
Moving down the food chain from meat to grains and vegetables allows more food to be produced, and makes it easier to feed people en masse (we would have much more grain to give to people, for instance, if we did not have to allocate so much of it for animal feed). But global trends are pushing people away from plants and toward more meat consumption: As nations like China and India develop, Shapiro notes that people living there previously on a primarily animal-free diet are now beginning to adjust to a more American-style diet, heavy in meat and dairy (and thanks, in no small part, to the proliferation of fast food empires like McDonald’s across the developing world).
“So we’re at the point where we can try to persuade people in the United States to voluntarily eat less meat, which is a good idea, but we can also try to produce meat with fewer resources,” Shapiro says. “It’s kind of like how you can try to get people to turn off their light bulbs more, but you can also invent a light bulb that’s so energy efficient that it wouldn’t even matter if they left it on.” The idea behind clean meat, Shapiro says, is avoiding the potential pitfalls of calling for a sweeping behavior shift, and instead tweaking the root of the thing that fuels that behavior in the first place.