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What Is Clean Meat?

March 3, 2019
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One of the primary concerns with industrial agriculture is that it produces unhealthy food. This can be a fear of additives or pathogenic contamination, but just as often it has to do with an imbalance or an absence, a sense that modern food is somehow lacking in vitality. In some cases, like the quantity of omega 3 fatty acids, there’s a good body of supporting research. But in others, such as the notion of nutrient density, things get vague pretty quickly. It’s tempting to assume that farming practices that are better for animals and the environment will also be better for people, and this may well be the case, but anyone who has paid attention to the shifting advice regarding fat, sugar, cholesterol, and salt should recognize that skepticism is about the only thing that is definitely healthy.

But my hesitation to oversell the physical benefits of grass-fed and pastured meat does not arise only from a surfeit of scientific caution. Rather, I worry that focusing too persistently on any one benefit of local farming will inevitably lead to its adoption by the established food conglomerates. Already grass-fed beef, both imported and domestic, is being produced on larger and larger scales, with no more more connections to their local economies than any other type of agriculture. Once the public shows enough interest in an idea that it can fit on a label it is only a matter of time before it is commodified.

And a far more serious threat than greenwashing is on the horizon. Lab grown meat will almost certainly become a reality in the coming decades, and it will bring with it a revolution. By divorcing meat from the consciousness of an animal it will deftly do away with the thorniest questions of welfare. It will also be engineered with whatever levels of nutrients are considered healthiest at a given moment. The environmental impacts are less certain at this point, but they’re not likely to be significantly worse than those of factory farms and could be much better.

As dystopian as the idea of giant, sterile warehouses growing identical pucks of muscle tissue by the millions may be, it would mostly be an improvement on the paradigm that currently predominates, a fact which is incredibly depressing. Despite the optics - it’s hard to imagine anything further from a diverse, multi-species, pasture based farm than a literal meat factory - the pragmatic differences between the two would actually be smaller in a few critical ways, namely that the end product would be closer in terms of suffering and nutritional content.

Proponents of this new industry have coined the term clean meat to describe their product. It’s clever, at once associating their factories with purity and farms like mine with contamination and filth. It’s easy to imagine the ad campaigns, with bright graphics explaining the process by which a chunk of clean meat is created, sealed, shipped, and sold under constant surveillance.

This is the cleanliness of the autoclave, bleach, irradiation, and all the other technologies used to exert something close to total control over a carefully constructed environment. Removing one particular biological process, the growth of muscle meat, from the literally millions that make up a functioning ecosystem, chief among them autonomy, requires the elimination of dynamic, mutually reinforcing and balancing systems. For decades the meat industry has been moving towards this, treating pigs and chickens as producers of flesh in which qualities like sentience are an unfortunate defect that must be constrained.

The phrase dead meat has always struck me as redundant, but it fits here, far better than clean. The dream of lab grown meat is of food that is thoroughly, aggressively lifeless, from the burger-like cluster of cells itself to the environment in which it is cultured. Rather than the incomprehensible number of species - dozens of vertebrates, hundreds of plants, thousands of insects, and millions of microorganisms and fungi - that live in relation to a cow on my farm, there would be few particular fractions of that cow, extracted and magnified endlessly in complete isolation.

Here starts an answer to why you might choose to buy a steak from a farm even if you could get a substantially equivalent item grown within a lab. For all the challenges of local agriculture, all the limitations of human understanding, all the pressures of the market, there is an underlying bet that it can be a vital system. It’s extremely hard, and I don’t claim to be anywhere near this ultimate goal, but it’s possible, I think, to practice agriculture with such wisdom that it incrementally shapes a piece of land into a place in which there is more and better life than there would be without it.

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