By attempting to avoid animal suffering, are we depriving them of life? Is lab-cultured ‘meat’ enlightened environmentalism, or just another attempt to cheat limits to growth, divorcing us further from the natural world? Gaia Baracetti reflects on her sheep, her fields, food culture and the moral pitfalls of seductive new technologies.
by Gaia Baracetti
Many people do not understand how farmers – or shepherds, or ranchers – can claim to love their animals, but still kill them.
Some of you who are reading this article are parents, or want to be. When we decide to have a child, the only thing we can be entirely sure of about them is that one day they will die. And yet, knowing this full well, we still consider life the greatest, the most magical of gifts; the ultimate act of love.
This analogy might not seem to go very far, because parents don’t usually kill their children; if anything, they would be willing to give up their own life to prolong their offspring’s. But the inevitability of death could turn the gift of life into a poisoned chalice; indeed, many people and philosophical movements throughout the ages have made this sort of argument. They have always been a minority: in its joys and sorrows, triumphs and disappointments, eternal principles and constant uncertainty, we mostly feel that life is worth living even if it inevitably hurts, decays and ends.
Not all parents are good parents and it’s certainly true that not all farmers care about the well-being of their animals. A good shepherd – I try to be one –not only takes care of their animals, but will also partake in their life and in their joy at being alive. When I watch my sheep, their bellies finally full, lying next to each other on the grass, serenely chewing their cud, their faces facing the sun with their eyes closed, I feel their peacefulness and contentment as my own. When I see them run and frolic down the field, or finally get whatever they’ve been relentlessly baaing for and silently enjoy it, or nurse their young, protected from predators, I believe that I am doing a good thing worth doing. That some of them will be killed is not so important; in this moment, they do not know that any more than they know it in their whole precarious, perennially alert existence as natural prey animals. I certainly do not enjoy it – I dread it, even, but as there is no life without death and no other way to do this, I accept it; claiming pastureland for sustenance seems to me actually more morally justified than to subtract it from the wild for mere personal pleasure while getting food from elsewhere.
What does terrify me, in shared moments such as these, is rather the thought of synthetic, lab-grown, cultured meat. As I look around at meadows covered with wildflowers and dotted with trees, where wagtails hop and herons visit and magpies feed and skylarks hide and pheasants call, rich with butterflies of different hues for every month and crawling with little things only the chickens can see, I worry about all of it disappearing to make room for yet more concrete and yet another lab. This is where cultured meat, after all, would be made.
As we replace horses and oxen with cars and tractors, wool and silk with synthetic fabrics, fields and forests with mines, dirt paths with paved roads; as our houses become bigger and cleaner and we build over natural environments for the sake of comfortably getting close enough to visit them, what we are actually doing is erasing life from the planet. All of it: not just domesticated life, but also whatever life form independently chooses or manages to thrive by our side. In the name of protecting it from death – an impossible feat – we are actually preventing it from living.
The same way we know that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, we should have figured out by now that the opposite of life is not death, but non-existence. That a lot of our supposedly cruelty-free production is actually life-free. Our arrogance as humans is such that, unable to accept the laws of life that existed way before us on this planet, we want to cancel life itself because we cannot tolerate its inseparableness from death.
More than anything, life needs space. We are taking all of that space and covering it with inert materials. Often in the name of the “environment”. Or of “animal rights”.
Why are we so unwise?
Why is being an environmentalist, nowadays, synonymous with being on a mission to erase any interaction between humans and animals that isn’t watching them from a distance or trapping them inside our houses to be our pets?
Animal abuse is very real. We should strive to eradicate it in all forms. That includes a serious reflection on our obsession with pets, who often lead much more miserable lives than the animals we work with or eat; and hard questions about the necessity of zoos and animal-based entertainment; and the lifting of the veil of respectability and unaccountability that hides most of our scientific experiments with animals. Abusing animals for food isn’t worse than abusing them for the sake of company or knowledge. And killing creates only a moment of suffering, maybe not even that if done carefully, while imprisoning, torturing, isolating can cause a lifetime of hopelessness, which is infinitely worse.
Cultured meat is not a solution to animal abuse, or a solution to anything at all except the endless appetite for profit of the investors who will become even richer, while small-scale farmers, such as myself, and self-sufficient communities will be crushed in the name of a misunderstanding of what ethical consumption is. It will not even spare animals entirely, as it is currently made from foetuses extracted from slaughtered cows. Most importantly, it will be yet another step in our relentless “progress” at the expense of the living natural world.
But animal husbandry, you might object, is not natural!
Let’s put aside the philosophical debate about what natural even means. The grazing of domesticated animals, or regular mowing for hay, create habitat types that are extremely rich in, for instance, plants and insects. Such land is much more biodiverse than a field of soy or corn and, if well-managed, can sequester carbon. It also serves multiple functions and can provide different kinds of foods, shade, recreation, as well as precious trees and wood. When abandoned, these meadows might revert to forest, which sounds good, but can lead to the local extinction of the wildlife that had become dependent on them. Moreover, if food for humans is not produced anymore on this land, some other land elsewhere will have to be cleared or cultivated more intensely.
Why is cultured meat touted as a solution, then?
Obviously, some people stand to make a lot of money from it. Factory production tends to concentrate wealth and power, whereas anyone who has even just a back yard can raise a few animals and be a little more self-sufficient.
What’s more disheartening, however, is that well-meaning environmentalists are jumping on this bandwagon. The problem here is a deep and consequential disconnect between people who profess to love “nature” and people who make a living from it. If you farm, you must be aware of realities that will not go away however much you might wish them to – such as the inevitability of death, or the fact that you cannot allow animals to breed indefinitely on the same piece of land without culling their numbers (and that all animals really want to breed). If you are an expert in ecology, you should know this but might still look with disdain upon people who are taking up a lot of land to produce food (for everybody), and make it your life mission to reduce that amount of land at all costs in order to save it for wildlife, even if this leads to a dystopian nightmare of plastic greenhouses, lifeless high-tech food production, and urban dwellers who cannot tell a hen from a rooster. And the land you imagined would be set aside for “wilderness” may end up hosting condos or warehouses instead.
It is a source of dismay to realise that many well-known environmentalists seem to hate us animal breeders with Cain’s passion. They don’t know some of the things we know – but they do not want to learn from us. They just want us to go away forever.
I suspect however that the biggest reason why we’re tempted to put our hopes into cultured meat is that we do not want to feel guilt, while at the same time we do not want to give up anything we enjoy, or even have a little less of it. We are looking for the apparently easy way out of this – and that never ends well. Some of the utopian claims about cultured meat are already being debunked, especially by interest groups openly fighting back, but my objection here is first and foremost existential and philosophical.
The question lab-grown meat is supposed to answer is the wrong question.
“How can we keep growing in numbers and appetites and still get everything we want guilt-free?” We cannot.
That’s why there are so many cheap, ugly, low-quality products made by exploited workers flooding the market and cluttering our homes. This includes food, which – at least in wealthier countries – is available in enormous quantities but is often unhealthy and nutritionally poor.
In many circles overpopulation is a taboo, but so is not giving everyone, materially, what they want, such as an unlimited supply of meat. How do we make everyone happy, then, if “no more” is prohibited as an answer? With unsatisfactory surrogates, that’s how. Even if lab-grown meat is accepted to be an unpleasant reality, some such as George Monbiot still consider it preferable to telling people there are limits to how many humans can live on this planet and how much meat we can sustainably produce for them.
Of course we cannot satisfy the growing global demand for meat with happy, pasture-fed cows, sheep, chicken or pigs; even less so with hunted and fished animals that have lived the freest of lives until their last breath. This doesn’t mean we should look for some surrogate with yet-to-be-known side effects, as we have done with the synthetic fabrics and plastics that are now polluting everything from the oceans to our blood.
The key to the problem lies upstream, not downstream – in the appetite, not the food.
It gives me some reassurance and even pride that in my own country, Italy, cultured meat might be a harder sell than elsewhere. The biggest farmers’ union, Coldiretti, is running a public lobbying campaign against it; an organic food chain has promised its customers that synthetic and insect-based foods will not be sold there.
Italy is famous not just for its food, which is actually quite simple and relies entirely on the quality of the ingredients, but for a certain attitude towards life. We like it to be pleasant. We enjoy good food, beauty of all kinds and quality relationships, to the point we might sacrifice other things for their sake. We are famous for creativity and small-scale artisanal production, and the many daily or yearly rituals that give structure and flavour to human life. We might not have much wilderness left, unfortunately, and have lately made a mess of our country, but still, our cities are small, sometimes surprisingly green, and surrounded by easily accessible countryside. We are proud of our traditions; we take a pleasure in making and a pleasure in consuming. Such pleasures are threatened by products that are too industrial and synthetic – such as cultured meat.
Not more, but better, should be the guiding principle of consumption above subsistence. Knowing what it takes to produce meat, I eat very little of it myself. But when I do, it has to be the right kind. The kind that comes from fully living beings that have the capacity to care for each other, to think independently, to enjoy sitting on the grass on a sunny day.