By Jacy Reese
Few buzzwords are more important in food marketing than “natural.” It’s been applied to everything from Cheetos to Minute Maid with high fructose corn syrup. Yet despite its meaninglessness, fifty-nine percent of shoppers say they regularly check for the label.
When it comes to meat, the situation is pretty crappy—in one experiment, 100 percent of ground beef samples tested positive for fecal bacteria. Virtually all meat today comes from animals who have been artificially bred for decades to grow in extremely unnatural ways. Chickens grow more than four times as large today as they did in the 1950s on the same diet. Over ninety-nine percent of US farmed animals and over ninety percent globally are raised on factory farms where they are tightly confined with other animals, leading to misery and disease.
I say all of this because the state of the food system is dire. We have a desperate need for solutions to halt the urgent catastrophe of animal and human suffering. This is why scientists and chefs have been working on so-called clean meat, real animal meat made without animal slaughter.
The process is fairly simple. Scientists take a sample of cells from a living animal, such as with the feather of a chicken. The cells are mixed with nutrients, sugar, and growth factors, which makes the cells grow into muscle, fat, and connective tissue—the constituents of meat.
This is actually the same process that happens inside of an animal’s body, just without the hair, feathers, hooves, nervous system, immune system, and other caloric needs of sentient animals. Scientists can also produce acellular products like milk and egg whites using microorganisms, the same process that has been used for decades to make other products like insulin for diabetics.
Obviously, this process can seem quite unnatural. But how does it really stack up against meat from animal farming?
A lot depends on exactly how we define the term. This isn’t an easy task, but the most common use of the term is something like, “the way things would be without human intervention.” However, virtually nothing we eat today is natural by this definition. Have you ever seen bananas before human intervention? They have more seeds than flesh, and they don’t taste very good at all. We took nature’s block of marble and sculpted it into exactly what humans desired: nutrients, color, tiny seeds, and lots of sugar.
If we look at cultured meat, the process itself is actually entirely natural—it’s just growing meat the same way it’s been grown inside animals. Of course, this technology changes the environment in which this happens, from in vivo (in a living organism) to ex vivo.
But it’s clear that something being natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Philosophers have even coined a term for this common logical fallacy, the appeal to nature. Plenty of bad things are natural, like murder and malaria. Plenty of good things are unnatural like plumbing and modern medicine.
But what matters for consumer adoption is simply the perception, not rational analysis. When people think of naturalness, they aren’t just thinking of a black-and-white question of human intervention. People often want natural food simply because marketers have shone a light on the term, and more rationally, consumers are also trying to approximate what really does matter about food: food safety, sustainability, animal welfare, and food tradition.
Naturalness can be a decent approximation for food safety when used as a precautionary principle. If we think of the spectrum of naturalness as ranging from “safely consumed for all human history” to “invented in 2018,” then it’s probably true that older foods are less likely to have food safety issues, simply due to their track record.
Cultured meat lacks this track record, but when it comes to direct estimates of the ethical and health issues—conventional meat is in a distant second place.
Cultured meat simply bypasses the foodborne illness that inevitably comes with animal agriculture. There’s no fecal contamination, because there’s no digestive system. Around eighty percent of US antibiotics are fed to farmed animals, which is a huge risk factor for superbugs—but there’s no need for the mass distribution of antibiotics in animal feed if there are no animals in the process.
In terms of sustainability, animals are woefully inefficient. For every ten calories of plant-based food fed to a farmed animal, we get around one calorie of animal-based food. For every ten grams of plant-based protein, we get around two grams of animal-based protein. This is because of extraneous processes, like digestion, that are completely irrelevant for cultured meat.
When we use sentient beings as mere property—as raw materials and labor to produce meat, dairy, and eggs—we inevitably see cruelty, because animal welfare will never perfectly align with animal efficiency.
Naturalness is also closely tied to people’s sense of food tradition. In Texas where I grew up, barbecue and meat-centric cooking were a crucial part of celebrations like birthdays and graduations. But this isn’t something we need to give up with cultured meat; we can still have our turkey for Thanksgiving. People eat meat in spite of how it’s produced, not because of it.
There’s good news for consumers eventually recognizing cultured meat as natural in all the ways that matter. Unlike with other food technologies like GMOs, public discussion of cultured meat has been centered on the ethical problems it will solve rather than the profits it will generate. And surveys have found that when people are told the details of growing meat without animals, as well as the argument that basically all human foods are unnatural, consumers are significantly more interested in trying it.
It would be tragic, if in 2050, we had climate catastrophe, superbugs, and mass animal cruelty because consumers were a little weirded out by a new food technology. Fortunately, the moral demand for cultured meat seems poised to overtake the initial hesitation.
About the Author
Jacy Reese is the research director and cofounder of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching the most effective strategies for expanding humanity’s moral circle. He previously served as board chair and a researcher at Animal Charity Evaluators. Reese’s writing has appeared in Vox, Salon, and the Huffington Post, and he has presented his research to academic and nonprofit audiences in fifteen countries. Follow him on Twitter at @jacyreese and visit his website.