Where’s the beef?

One of the nice things about being an American is the abundance of food and food choices. We can be any kind of “-arian” or “-vore” we desire. We can customize our food to our particular needs. This depends, of course, on a resource-rich and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, a system that can produce massive surpluses so that costs are low and access to goods is easy. In fact, we are so wealthy in food that we can, in our disdain for modernity, refuse to buy such products and insist they be locally-sourced and that we buy them directly from farmers. Boutique foodstuffs are all the rage as we grow increasingly suspicious of our technological future. Somehow they connect us with the (mostly imaginary) wholesomeness of olden days. The rap on the new is that it isn’t as healthy, or as safe, as the way grandma used to do it.

Until the industrial revolutions of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries most people were farmers. These days very few people are farmers, unless you are in an under-developed country. In those places subsistence agriculture is still the way of things. Twenty-first century Americans have a romantic notion about family farming, imagining frolicking cows and happy harvest times. The reality is quite different as market fluctuations and the random nature of weather mean an unceasing uncertainty for the farmer. It’s hard work, too, even for people who have tractors and electricity and whatnot. The rise of corporate agriculture is concomitant with the rise in population. The neighborhood farm these days might have some really nice fresh greens but the “real meat” (i.e., a protein-rich food) is almost entirely created on a large scale.

Even vegans, who get protein from legumes and grains and such, eat more than they can grow in a backyard garden. And you don’t get your wheat, quinoa, or soybeans at the roadside stand. Those require a modern food production and distribution scheme just like beef, pork, and eggs. I’ve no doubt that some hardy folks who have the space and are willing to do the labor can live on what they grow on-site, but that’s not a model for seven-plus billion, especially when half live in cities. No, the future will be about providing high-quality food across the entire globe in more sustainable ways. Sustainable does not mean low energy or low resource use, however. All the modern means of ramping up food production will require lots of energy and other resources like water.

Sustainable might mean finding ways to recycle water, reduce the overall water footprint, or even using lower-grade water sources to grow crops, especially ones that people don’t eat like cotton. It might mean re-designing farms to allow more wildlife habitat, or fallow areas for recharging aquifers and replenishing soil nutrients. It might mean more precisely-timed fertilizer applications and sequestering of the runoff so it can be used again. Genetically-modified organisms will certainly play a role, especially drought-tolerant varieties and ones that can thrive in poor soils. Perhaps farmers will power their machinery with sunlight or biofuels grown in algae tanks. Technical advances in machinery and such will replace farmworkers in many applications freeing crop production from geo-politics. We hear a lot about sustainability but we don’t hear much about what it really means in terms of money, time, energy, and technology.

Transportation requires an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, seaports, airports, as well as a fuel network (even if they are “carbon-neutral” fuels like hydrogen) to supply the vehicles. We grow enough food to feed everyone, we just can’t get it to them. Some places—like the US—have food gluts and waste countless kilograms of edible stuff. So any notion of a sustainable, eco-friendly agriculture will have to account for the distribution and transport sector as well, not to mention packaging, refrigeration, and storage to ensure quality and freshness.

Ultimately we will have to get over some of our old-fashioned ideas about what is edible. Have you heard of Quorn? It is a meat substitute, that is, a protein source, made from mycoprotein. The prefix myco- means fungus and that’s what it is, a fermented goop made in a tank composed mostly of the mushroom-like (perhaps mold-like is a better description) organism Fusarium venenatum. People eat the stuff, it’s an alternative for those who don’t want to eat meat. In some parts of the world people eat insects, grubs, or even worms. Fungus-cakes are pretty tame by comparison.

Beer is brewed in big vats under sterile conditions and requires fermentation so the idea of lab-created foodstuffs is not so radical. We make a lot of wholesome, desirable foods with industrial processes. Cheese, for example, is micro-biologically pure, as are pickles and sauerkraut. Sure, you can do this stuff at home or on the artisanal level, but most of us get these things in supermarkets and so are buying factory-made versions. You can find lots of stuff in the freezer aisles that are labeled, truthfully, as “natural” but that doesn’t mean hand-made in a kitchen. Only economies of scale make $3.99 Mexican dinners possible and only advances in packaging keep them fresh. A popular brand in our market is Amy’s, they advertise their commitment to eating well and all that but don’t show you pictures of the factory. I drove by it once, it is in southern Idaho near Pocatello. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I like their products and I hope the business thrives. I just don’t need the down-home momma’s-kitchen bullshit. I’m a big boy and I know that food in packages has to be manufactured, that is, industrially-processed.

I want to eat wild salmon, not farm-raised. But I’m not against salmon farming by any means. At some point wild salmon will be a boutique food and with today’s prices it is almost there. So we’ll have to switch. Maybe the GM salmon will win people over (I’ll eat it if ever given the chance) and that might help the wild populations by reducing demand. The most exciting thing in the new food world is lab-raised meat. There’s an outfit in Holland (where GM foods are outlawed) that is growing beef in a vat. Stem cells are taken from live cows and raised on nutrients in a petri dish and then scaled up to grow in larger vessels. It’s far from a commercial product, but it is a sign of things to come. People are squeamish, but they needn’t be. This stuff (called Mosa Meat) is actually REAL MEAT. It just grows outside the animal! Think of how much land can be saved from grazing, how many creatures that won’t have to be slaughtered, how much less water and energy will be needed, and how many tons of greenhouse gases can be reduced with this production method. I might really like my pasture-raised grass-fed local beef, but my many millions of hungry fellow world-citizens might have to settle for something else. The least we could do is make the alternative nutritious, edible, inexpensive, and available. And pretty soon most of us won’t know the difference even if we do pine away for the good old days of mold-encrusted carcasses hanging in warehouses.