As a leader and sometimes-spokesperson for Jewish Veg, I am often asked: What do you think of lab-grown meat?
Well, I have a question for people who are investing and doing research and development in lab-grown meat, and for the many start-ups doing this work in Israel.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand — and enthusiastically support — the aim of ending the consumption of confined, mutilated and killed animals. If lab-grown meat is going to be the solution, then bring it on!
But why do well-meaning and highly intelligent business people think lab-grown meat is the solution to the horrors of animal agriculture?
There are (at least) three huge obstacles confronting the fast-growing lab-grown-meat industry:
1. The technological hurdles are enormous. I don’t want to bore anyone with scientific minutiae, so I’ll mention just one of many daunting challenges: Animal cells, even in a laboratory, excrete waste, which in turn inhibits the growth. These and other technological issues will be very expensive to address on a large scale, if they can be successfully addressed at all. The Good Food Institute (GFI), the leading nonprofit organization promoting lab-grown meat, projects that these products will be readily available and cost-competitive by 2030. GFI, I hate to tell you this: Almost invariably, complex projects take longer to bring to fruition than expected. And lab-grown meat is an exceedingly complex undertaking.
2. In the meantime, companies are already producing plant-based versions of virtually every animal product imaginable, running laps around the lagging lab-grown-meat sector. You’ve heard — and probably tried — the products of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. And there are hundreds of other companies producing plant-based sausages, lunch meats, cheeses, eggs, you name it.
3. Last but not least is the “ick factor.” Now, if you ask me, nothing is ickier than eating the flesh or secretions of an animal. But we just don’t know if consumers are going to accept food grown in a lab. One recent survey of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. showed that fewer than 20% are eager to try lab-grown meat.
I understand that the technological hurdles — and even consumer concerns — can be surmounted, at least in theory. But it’s worth noting that the plant-based sector is still just scratching the surface of what is possible with plant proteins, and they’re already a presence on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, even at Burger King and KFC.
In other words, if I could rub two shekels together, I would invest them in the plant-based sector, which is already generating eye-popping growth.
But there is an ethical issue as well as a financial one.
The reality is, we cannot afford to wait until 2030 — or, more likely, 2035 or 2040 — for lab-grown meat to arrive.
Climate change is sparking wildfires, melting glaciers and causing floods now. And animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire fossil-fuel-burning transportation sector.
If we’re serious about slowing the warming of the planet, then we need a societal and dramatic reduction in animal-product consumption as soon as possible, like yesterday.
Then there’s this: While we’re fiddling around in laboratories, about 190 million mammals and birds are killed for food every hour on this planet. (That doesn’t even count fishes.) And the vast majority of them suffered terribly their entire lives.
Amid this suffering and bloodshed, a sense of urgency is required. We desperately need massive public and private investment in the plant-based sector.
I wish the lab-grown-meat folks nothing but the best. Really, I do.
But the solution is already staring us in the face, every time we decide what to put in our shopping cart or what to order off the menu.
I’ll have two veggie cheeseburgers, and I’ll delight in the fact that they’re getting tastier and easier to find all the time. PJC
Jeffrey Spitz Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Veg, an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and assist our fellow Jews to transition to plant-based diets.